Globally, more organisations are employing women in senior management positions. picture:Patrick Tomasso/ Unsplash

 According to the latest Grant Thornton Women In Business report, 2019 has seen women in senior management positions increasing to a record 29%. It is the biggest increase in the proportion of women in executive roles around the world, rising five percentage points from 24% in 2018 – and it is the first time that the proportion of women in senior leadership is more than one in four. Globally, more organisations are employing women in senior management positions with some leading companies, like Facebook for instance, announcing earlier in 2019, plans to push its workforce to be at least 50% female within the next five years.  

Additionally, at the recent 50 MAKERS conference, powerful companies like Unilever, IBM and Adobe pledged to double or significantly increase female employees or initiatives to boost women in the workplace.

In South Africa’s public service, 45.3% of employees are women and 39% of senior management is female with 32.6% of top management being women. The private sector does not fare as well, however, with women only making up 32.3% of senior management and 21.6% of top management. On the upside, though, the pay gap between men and women has narrowed with a UCT study pointing to the fact that South African women directly benefited from the introduction of minimum wages and affirmative action laws aimed at improving racial and gender diversity. 

The study showed that in 1993, a year before the end of apartheid, women in low-paying jobs such as domestic work or unskilled farm labour were paid 21% less than men in the same jobs, but the wage gap narrowed to 7% in 2014. The proportion of women with tertiary education doubled to 20% in 2015 from 10% in 1993, compared with a more modest rise to 15% from 11% for men. The participation of African women in the workforce jumped to 49% in 2015 from 36%, and the pay gap narrowed, an “unintended” result of minimum-wage legislation in a number of sectors that happened to be dominated by female workers, says UCT researcher Jacqueline Mosomi.

While these may be interpreted as positive signs of a changing landscape, the overall environment is still far from ideal. A PwC report reveals that only 3.3% of all CEOs on the JSE in 2018 are female, up from 2.2% in 2017. After the resignation of Maria Ramos as the ABSA chief, there is no woman CEO in a Top 40 listed company.   

As others have pointed out before – the problem is not that women are not in the workforce, the issue is that they are not progressing from middle management. That glass ceiling is astonishingly resilient. And where women do occupy positions of power and leadership, they find themselves having to think more strategically about their role and impact. They are often judged more harshly than men. For instance, Theresa May took on an almost impossible task to negotiate the UK’s exit from the European Union, a job for which she was widely criticised and despite her obvious ability and competence, it has been suggested by some in the media that history will not be kind to her when looking back on her time in office. Although there are other voices pointing out how much she has done for women in politics as well as feminist policies in the UK.

 A local example could be former SAA treasurer, Phumeza Nhantsi, who recently told the state capture inquiry that she had “no idea what she was getting herself into” when she joined SAA. It has been suggested by some that women often volunteer for difficult or challenging positions for empathetic reasons – by wanting to be the person who takes on a challenging or thankless tasks – unconsciously disadvantaging themselves. This could be anything from offering to take notes at a meeting or helping a colleague with a power point presentation to organising the office party.

 “Such office housework holds women back, too — and not just because it undercuts their authority and devours time they could spend on more valued projects. It’s also a political tightrope for women. Saying no without seeming touchy, humourless or supremely selfish is a particularly tricky balancing act,” writes Joan C Williams, an American law professor and author. 

While matters are certainly improving for women in terms of gender equality, parity and equal pay in the workplace, we still have some way to go. Initiatives like 30% Club and Business Engage continue to advance and promote women in leadership positions. Executive education and other professional development opportunities can also contribute to helping women access their personal power and learn how to harness it. Sometimes it can be as small a thing as paying attention to the way a woman speaks in a meeting, how she articulates and comes across. Even on a medium supposedly as neutral as email, men and women are treated differently. An experiment by US recruiter Martin Schneider a few years ago, proved this. When he sent emails and signed off as a woman, he was treated with less respect, more condescension and doubt and was even flirted with. As a man, the responses he received were more professional and polite. 

Until the day that women are treated – and paid equally – it is always going to be a struggle to make it to the top. Until then, we will have to be brave enough to take risks and face the biases both conscious and unconscious that we will encounter in our colleagues and from wider stakeholders. While we must celebrate the small gains made by professional women in the workplace, we must also not lose sight of the goal of absolute parity. Let’s not forget that the ILO forecasts that it could be up to 200 years before women achieve parity with men at management level globally – unless action is taken. We therefore need to make sure that we are at the forefront of that action, both as individuals and organisations.

 * West is the director of Executive Education at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.