She is one of South Africa's most powerful businesswomen.

But when Wendy Luhabe is invited to serve on a company's board of directors, she is required to have the acceptance form co-signed by her husband, Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa.

"I've always put a line through that part and have never had the forms sent back to me," Luhabe said, speaking at the release in Sandton on Thursday of the results of a census by the Business Women's Association (BWA).

It seems that despite major strides by state-owned enterprises, private companies are sadly lacking when it comes to empowering women.

The BWA tracked the number of female directors, executive managers, CEOs and board chairs on all 347 companies listed on the JSE Securities Exchange and on the 17 state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The South African Women in Corporate Leadership Census 2004 was conducted between September last year and March this year.

BWA president Dr Namane Magau said the government was a shining example of how equity could be handled, as 40 percent of cabinet ministers were women.

The census found that despite women constituting 52 percent of the population, only 41 percent of women where employed. And out of a total of 5 011 executive managers in the country, only 739 or 14,7 percent where women. Of the 3 125 directors, only 221 or 7,1 percent where women. Only 11 women were chairpersons of boards and a mere seven were CEOs.

They study, conducted in conjunction with Catalyst, an American business women's organisation, has also been carried out in the Unites States, Australia and Canada.

"Overseas the biggest companies have led the way (with female empowerment) but in South Africa the reverse is true - the SOEs have outperformed the listed companies," said Niven Postma, CEO of the BWA.

She pointed out that female representation in the resource industry was particularly bad.

Postma also made reference to what is called the "stiletto ceiling" - where a few powerful women are seen as holding a majority of top positions, preventing other females from entering top positions.

She said the census had proved this belief to be a myth.

"The perception that only a few, powerful women hold a majority of the directorships held by women is untrue. Power is actually spread far more evenly among those women. A total of 170 women directors hold 221 directorships among them.

"It was found that a majority of women hold only one directorship and only three women (in SA) hold six directorships each," Postma said.

The census found that almost two-thirds of companies in South Africa have no women in top positions. A majority of these companies were private.

While 59,5 percent of companies had no woman directors, only 4,9 percent had three or more woman directors.

The census found that JSE-listed companies were far behind state-owned ones, with 61,1 percent having no female directors at all - compared to 17,6 percent of SOEs which had no female directors.

The deputy CEO of the JSE Securities Exchange, Nicky Newton-King, said a diverse workforce was important for business.

"The best decisions are taken after robust debate. It is often difficult to have debate with a group of clones or 'yes-men'."

"So it's important to fully embrace diversity - both gender and racial diversity," Newton-King said.

Maria Ramos, group chief executive of Transnet, lauded the census, saying that unless representations were measured, progress would be difficult.

"Unless you measure (progress), you don't know where you are going or how you are going to get there."

The importance of women in corporate leadership was vital, Ramos said.

She said she was proud to discover that Transnet was listed as one of the 10 firms with 25 percent or more director or executive manager positions held by women.

"Now that Transnet has a substantial number of women in executive, board, director, and (other) senior positions, it puts an enormous burden on each of us (to institute change)."

"If, in three years from now, I have not transformed Transnet, then my gender doesn't make a difference."

"The ratio (of gender) is important but it is (also) important how that is (further) used to transform," Ramos said.

Tom Boardman, the chief executive of Nedbank, which sponsored the census, said it was "folly in a country with a shortage of skills" not to utilise skilled women for top positions.

The top 10 companies with 25 percent or more female executives and directors are: Air Traffic and Navigation Services, Enviroserv Holdings Ltd, Maxtec Ltd, MTN Group, SABC, South African Post Office, Spescom, Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority, Transnet, and Venter Leisure & Commercial Trailers.