South African Women Climbing to Leadership

Twenty-one years after the end of apartheid, South Africa has made significant progress on both racial and gender fronts; but, like most countries in the world, we still have a long way to go to achieve parity among men and women in corporate management roles.

Statistics reveal that women are struggling to climb to the top.

In a December 2014 BizNews article, only two women were listed in the top 100 CEOs of South Africa. The 2015 International Labour Organization (ILO) report ranks South Africa 54 out of 108 countries for women in management.

Why are we not seeing more women rise to the top in corporate South Africa?

I asked three top women in South Africa share their opinions on this trend, and have drawn a few action steps corporates and individuals can take to create more space for women in top and senior management roles.

Monica Singer, CEO of Strate, explains her views on the issue. The sole breadwinner and a single parent of two children, she never gave up on her career aspirations. She explained that:

monica singer“Women don’t tap into their network of both men and women to build business and relationships with one another. There is also a historical lag in terms of men having been in the formal workplace/ economy for years and therefore have an established network whereas women’s networks are relatively new and made up of younger people. Senior management roles are built on relationships and so often women are too stuck being the office workhorses that they don’t lift their heads out of this mindset and see the bigger picture…women need to identify where they want to go and position themselves accordingly…we need to encourage and promote more women into core roles as opposed to support functions. This not only will lead to more women filling senior management roles but provide role models, coaches and mentors for others…”

Elizabeth Maepa, Group Human Resources Executive and Executive Member of the FirstRand Group, shared insight on the progression of women in corporate South Africa. Having worked up through the ranks to a management position herself, she clearly sees the areas in need of growth.

0cb5661“South Africa has followed the global pattern, where the number of women entering senior roles in the corporate world have been slow. Ultimately, there needs to be proper planning and creation of a strong multi-skilled pipeline of women, i.e. there needs to be a high proportion of women who can perform critical functions across all business disciplines to ensure that opportunities at senior and top management begin to be accessible to women… for conditions to improve we must not only look at the numbers of women entering the workplace or just focus on setting appropriate gender targets, we also need to create work place environments that are conducive for women to grow. Women, also need to make it their personal responsibility to have clearly defined career progression plans and these should be well articulated in talent development discussions…”

Colleen Larsen, Chief Executive of Business Engage, and a custodian of the 30% Club Southern Africa, believes that women need to participate in shaping the economy, pointing out how they can re-evaluate their behavior and environment.

441d02_cdd2000347594f4ab84217876db4b6c1.jpg_srz_256_371_85_22_0.50_1.20_0“As a generalisation, the opportunities for women in management quite often occur at a time in the woman’s life when there are other pressing matters that are equally or even more important than their career.  Unfortunately, the systems and processes that private sector companies have adopted do not cater adequately for this… there is a saying that women should be shaping the economy, not fitting into it. Whilst, that is true, women should also look to re-evaluate their environments and behaviours to allow them to compete on an equal footing with men. This would include the way that they compete, seek mentors and sponsors, deal with conflict, and express their aspirations…”


More can be done by corporates in South Africa to empower more women within their organisations, and women can do more to start asserting their place.

The first step is for corporates to create pipelines for women in their organizations organizations to become the next board members, CFOs, or CEOs.

One way to set up this pipeline is to identify women with leadership qualities, then invite them to attend board, vision, and planning meetings. These South African women should also be invited to participate on projects that groom their responsibility for future leadership roles.

HERE are four actions women can take:

  1. Ask to be put in roles that allow them to show their expertise.
  2. Get the training and technical skills that prepare them for top and senior management roles. 
  3. Develop mentoring relationships with senior managers.
  4. Make themselves indispensable as leaders in their areas.

As South Africa moves forward in global leadership and seeks to boost its economy, women can no longer stay in support roles. They and corporations must develop their standing in corporate and business leadership.

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