Women’s agenda shouldn’t be another COVID-19 casualty

The much-anticipated “new normal” should not turn out to be a step back for women in the workplace

COVID-19, and particularly the response to it, constitutes a massive crisis. The trouble is that during times of crisis it’s easy to jettison things we formerly thought were important in the name of survival: we run a real risk that the “new normal” could come to mean fewer personal liberties, a permanently constrained economy and a significant downgrading of the women’s agenda to obtain proper representivity and recognition in the workplace.

The danger that the women’s agenda takes a back seat in the post-COVID-19 world might seem like a lesser matter but actually it’s not. It intersects with concerns about personal liberty in the most fundamental way as well as with the health of the economy.

Women have a massive contribution to make to the economy, and thus to everybody’s wellbeing. If the women’s agenda is side-lined, we all suffer—and it’s clear that the economy will need all the help it can get to recover from the body blow of the extended lockdown and the virtual cessation of global trade.

Why the women’s agenda makes business and economic sense

The issue about women’s role in driving economic growth and creating profitable companies has been highlighted extebsively. Since McKinsey’s ground-breaking 2007 study, [1] which linked gender balance and financial performance, women’s economic role has been accepted as a legitimate business strategy.

Perhaps nothing spells out the economic benefits inherent in women’s contribution to corporate profits better than the fact that investment funds are beginning to use gender diversity as an indicator when it comes to assessing how investment worthy a company is.

Another McKinsey study found that the US could add $2.1 trillion in GDP in 2025 if all US states achieve similarly high levels of gender parity—this is 10% increase in the expected GDP (obviously before the impact of COVID-19). This GDP growth would in turn generate an additional 6.4 million jobs.[2]

The risks to the women’s agenda posed by COVID-19

First, and perhaps most fundamental of all, it appears that women have suffered more from job losses than men. This stems from the fact that women are overrepresented in jobs that are low paid or part time in sectors like leisure and hospitality, education and health and the like. In America, 20.5 million jobs were lost during March and April 2020 alone. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women make up 49% of the overall US workforce but accounted for 55% of job losses in April, thus “erasing a decade of substantial job gains for women nationwide”.[3]

And, as the United Nations points out,[4] the situation is much worse in developing economies where around 70% of female employment is in the informal sector, which is least likely to be receiving government support during the crisis, and most affected by social-distancing regulations.

A related risk is that promotions and accelerated training aimed specifically at empowering women within corporates and strengthening gender diversity might be put on hold. In the short term, this decision makes sense, but as companies come to terms with the new working arrangements, they should not lose sight of these programmes.

A second risk relates to the shift to working from home. This is naturally playing havoc with work/ life balance, and there is plenty of evidence to back up what we all know: women already shoulder more of the burden of household management and childcare than their male partners. Women are sleeping less in order to find time to get all the work and house-care done; and their ability to conduct themselves professionally during meetings is much more impaired.

Unsurprisingly, a recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested that women are suffering more stress than men during the COVID-19 emergency.[5]

All of this feeds into the subtle set of cues and learned behaviours that set women back. One of these is the reversion to traditional gender roles, of course, but a more insidious one is the “confirmation” that women really do put family before career. This belief, says one commentator, means that career-conscious women downplay their family roles at work in order to demonstrate they do not have divided loyalties, and are as ambitious and determined to succeed as male peers.[6]

In the home-working situation, women need to negotiate a sustainable and equitable distribution of household and childcare tasks with their partners as soon as possible, rather than taking the path of least resistance.

What can companies do?

Now that companies are stabilising somewhat, it’s time for them to take stock of the possible impacts of this crisis on many of their strategic initiatives, of which empowering women should be (and usually is) one. As noted above, any specific programmes they have put on hold should be revisited and, if necessary, re-envisaged for the realities of remote working and social distancing.

Unfortunately, retrenchments and job losses may be necessary. HR professionals should do everything in their power to ensure that due weight is given to considerations of gender parity when these difficult decisions are being made.

Perhaps the best antidote to the threats to women posed by COVID-19 is the one that has always fuelled much of the progress towards female empowerment: the support of like-minded women. Companies can encourage the formation of virtual support groups within the organisation for their women (and other minorities) during this period. They can also provide links to external support and mentorship groups and platforms.

Advancing the women’s agenda has always made good sense, both commercially and morally. Let’s ensure that the progress the corporate world has made towards achieving its goals are not one of the casualties of COVID-19.

[1] McKinsey & Co, Women Matter. Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver (October 2007), available at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/the-power-of-parity-advancing-womens-equality-in-the-united-states.

[1] McKinsey Global Instittute, “The power of parity: Advancing women’s equality in the United States”, available at https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Featured%20Insights/Employment%20and%20Growth/The%20power%20of%20parity%20Advancing%20womens%20equality%20in%20the%20United%20States/MGI-Power-of-Parity-in-US-Executive-briefing.ashx.

[1] Brittany Chambers, “How The Coronavirus Has Resulted In The Highest Job Loss For Women: Erasing A Decade Of Progress”, Forbes (12 May 2020), available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/brittanychambers/2020/05/12/how-the-coronavirus-has-resulted-in-the-highest-job-loss-for-women-erasing-a-decade-of-progress/#4cb0add6192a.

[1] United Nations, “Policy brief: The impact of COVID-19 on women” (9 April 2020), available at https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/policy_brief_on_covid_impact_on_women_9_april_2020.pdf.

[1] Liz Hamel and Alina Salganicoff, “Is There a Widening Gender Gap in Coronavirus Stress?”, Kaiser Family Foundation (6 April 2020), available at https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-policy-watch/is-there-widening-gender-gap-in-coronavirus-stress/.

[1] Jenny M Hoobler, “Gender equality gets a boost from the ‘new normal’”, Daily Maverick (11 May 2020), available at https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-11-gender-equality-gets-a-boost-from-the-new-normal.

What corporate SA should be doing this Women’s month

South African business has a serious diversity problem – only 3.3% of listed companies have female CEOs and 85% of CEOs are white, despite an increase from 2018. According to an analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews, women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones. There’s mounting research that women are better leaders.

According to those who work most closely with them, women make highly competent leaders. In fact, the study showed that women are thought to be more effective in 84% of leadership competencies that are most frequently measured, particularly taking initiative, acting with resilience, practicing self-development, driving for results and displaying high integrity and honesty.

However, when women are asked to assess themselves, they are not as generous in their ratings. This aligns with my understanding from hundreds of conversations with women in the workplace.

Women’s Month is observed in August to honour a profound act of dignity and unity, when in 1956, women of all races from all over South Africa, marched to the Union Buildings to protest the pass laws. In my view, we should honour the actions of the women of 1956 and our leaders by improving the lives of South African women instead of turning August into a time to succumb to pink platitudes and pink cupcakes on desks ‘to recognise our women’.

It is baffling that we are still having discussions about the benefits of more women in leadership positions, when volumes of research make this point. And yet here we are. The problem is that we don’t seem to be moving the dial. In August especially, it’s great that we talk more about the value of women in society, but we need more action.

It’s time for South African employers to look at their businesses. It’s time to make at least one bold move. Start to measure something you haven’t previously measured. Actively investigate whether there are institutional barriers for women that have crept into your organisation.

What are you doing as an employer of women? What is the gender pay gap in your organisation? Do you have flexible working options? Are women being recruited, promoted and retained in your business? Is your workplace one in which women are free from unwanted attention? Do women have a voice in your organisation?

Creating a workplace which works for women has the bonus of working for men too. Workplace cultures that place an emphasis on respect are good for business. Diverse workplaces are more creative, happier and more productive.

My challenge and yours is to do something tangible this Women’s Month instead of participating in patronising marketing activities that celebrate women in a frivolous way. This comes across as trying to make women feel better about the fact that nothing significant is happening rather than getting to the crux of the issue.

The crux is that we are still justifying whether women make good leaders. Let’s embrace men in the conversation. It is no longer an opinion that having more women at the top is generally more profitable for businesses, or that diversity adds tangible value and impacts supply chains. Let’s start holding organisations accountable.

What’s holding women back is not lack of capability; it’s the lack of opportunity. Business leaders need to consider what is causing this lack of opportunity – is there unconscious bias at play?
In 1956, 20 000 South African women stood powerfully silent for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! which represents courage and strength: you strike a woman, you strike a rock.
It is a travesty to reduce this day in our history to cheap marketing gimmicks. Instead, let’s celebrate great South African leaders – both men and women – who inspire others to do more than they thought possible in business, in education, in politics, in life.

Six things businesses can do this women’s month

  1. Ensure targets, reporting and accountability reflect a commitment to ensuring more women in senior positions. It should be rare for women to be the only female at their managerial level.
  2. Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair and don’t make assumptions about what women with families want or don’t want.
  3. Recognise unconscious biases and everyday discrimination, which appears subtly and is amplified towards people perceived as having less power and ensure that senior leaders become advocates of diversity.
  4. Foster an inclusive and respectful culture that provides opportunities for women to showcase their achievements and ask for promotions on account of their work.
  5. Offer employees flexibility and consider creative ways to bring women who have taken a break in their career back into the workplace.
  6. Underscore that sexual harassment is unacceptable and will not be overlooked. HR teams need detailed training, so they know how to thoroughly and compassionately investigate claims of harassment, even if senior leaders are the harassers.

Discussing Gender Parity

Donna was featured on Radio 2000’s Breakfast with Nala show discussing gender parity and the impact of a diverse workforce on a company’s bottom line

Listen to the full interview here:

More women at the top will ensure that SA and the global economy become more successful

Tuesday, 2 April 2019: The benefits of women in the workplace are even greater than originally thought, according to a new study by the International Monetary Fund. If countries with low gender equality improved their equality ratings, they could see their economies grow by an average of 35% (South Africa was ranked 19th in terms of the 2018 global equality ranking scale).

While recognising the talents that women can bring to the workplace is so important, IMF Head Christine Lagarde points out that the world economy would also be less prone to financial collapse with more women in senior roles.

Women bring new skills to the workplace, and help to boost productivity as well as the size of the workforce. The IMF has started to press member countries to put into action policies that empower women, such as urging India to improve transport to make it easier for women to get to work and calling on Morocco to change its inheritance laws.

The research suggests that banks would be more stable if there were more women on their boards. Banks which have more women in executive positions have larger capital buffers, fewer non-performing loans and lower risk indices.

Gender gap

We are past debating the integral role women play in growing economies. Yet the gender gap is still massive. In 2018 the World Economic Forum estimated that the global gender gap will take 108 years to close and economic gender parity will take even longer – about 202 years.

France and Germany tax men and women separately rather than jointly when they live in the same household. Female participation is still way below that of men, and the gender pay gap among rich countries members is 16% (amongst members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank for developed nations). Although South Africa has done relatively well at 19th for overall gender equity, we came in at 91 for economic participation and opportunity. We have plenty of room to improve.

Interestingly, 88% of countries worldwide have restrictions against women in the workplace embedded in their constitutions or laws. Some forbid women from doing specific jobs, 59 countries have no laws against sexual harassment in the workplace and there are 18 countries where women can be legally prevented from working.


While we don’t have any institutional restrictions on women in the workplace in South Africa, there are a number of barriers for women in business.

Women are judged more harshly at work than their male counterparts, particularly when it comes to making mistakes. Women who lead large public and private companies face greater scrutiny because of their gender. They’re also more likely to be judged according to their voice and personalities. In 2015, a study found that women’s perceived competency drops by 35% when they’re judged as being forceful or assertive — qualities often lauded among male CEOs. So, women don’t make mistakes more often than men, but when they do the consequences are harsher; they fall harder than their male counterparts.

Gender empowerment

Author Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic raises two powerful questions we should consider. Why is it so easy for incompetent men to become leaders? And why is it so hard for competent people to advance, especially competent women?

When competent women and men who don’t fit the stereotype are unfairly overlooked, we all suffer the consequences. The result, he argues, is a deeply flawed system that rewards arrogance rather than humility, and loudness rather than wisdom.

There is plenty of evidence that shows improved profitability for businesses with women at the top. The recent IMF study provides proof that gender empowerment means higher growth, a reduction in inequality, an improvement in the strength of the economy and a more diversified, export-focused country.

What is South African business waiting for?

Interview with 702’s Africa Melane

Donna Rachelson spoke to 702’s Africa Melana about the need for intervention by South African businesses to prevent the failure of women in the workplace.

You can listen to the full interview here:

What is a personal brand – and do you really need one online?

In today’s fast-paced, interconnected world, whether you realise it or not, you have a personal brand, separate to the company you run or work for – and if you haven’t already, you need to start cultivating it into something of your choosing before it gets defined by those around you instead, particularly online.

Gone are the days of being able to hide behind a strong corporate logo or successful product range because the world of marketing has fundamentally changed – and consequently, the ways in which people interact and shop have followed suit. According to www.ceohangout.com, most people head to the web when looking for products and services, generating up to 77% of all social media discussions with their requests for advice and information. Of this, 92% of them only trust recommendations from individuals – even the ones they don’t know – over a company – and go on to share these endorsements 24 times more frequently. This means that if you have a strong personal brand and are perceived as a credible source, your individual recommendations receive 561% more marketing reach than those of your company. Ultimately, the respect people have for your personal brand has more clout and listening power than anything else.

This makes personal branding – especially online – more powerful than ever before. It’s far more than the buzzword it became in 2006 when Times Magazine named ‘You’ as Person of the Year. It’s what gives you credibility, makes you stand out, allows you to charge a premium and ultimately, convert leads into sales.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon has been famously quoted as saying that your brand is ‘what people are saying about you when you are not in the room but in his TED talk, marketer Time Leberecht points out that, thanks to hyper connectivity, the room is now always open for conversation.

Donna Rachelson, CEO of Seed Engine – and founder of Branding and Marketing YOU, says that ‘your name is continuously coming up through online searches and social media channels and if you do not take control of it, you will miss out on being able to own what you stand for and how influence your network. Focusing on your brand pushes you to think about what you stand for and where you want to be, in terms of positioning in people’s minds. What is it that makes you unique and different?’

She cautions however, that the way in which you nurture your brand must be authentic. ‘We are seeing two major shifts in the world from a personal branding perspective at the moment – a huge increase in online impact, where you are evaluated every moment of the day, based on what you post; as well as a lot of buzz around disruption and innovation. In this world of constant change, where technological boundaries are continuously being pushed, it’s crucial not to get confused between disruption and maintaining a solid, personal brand – the bedrock of your success.’

‘Messing with your brand confuses people about what you stand for and what makes you different,’ Rachelson continues. Stability equates to consistency for people and that’s what they like to trust. It’s not about conveying an image you think people want to see but rather, consistently showcasing the values, attributes and characteristics that you want to be known for.’

‘However,’ says Rachelson, ‘this does not mean your personal brand can stand still – where disruption becomes relevant is in continuously keeping your skillset updated and having a thorough grasp of the changes and opportunities in your industry. Stephen Covey summed this up so well when he said that you need to begin with the end in mind. His book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ lists this as ‘habit number 2’ and says that ‘if you don’t make a conscious effort to visualise who you are and what you want in life, then you empower others to shape you by default.’

Clearly, the most important part of your personal brand is taking control and while there is no single path to success, Tom Peters, who wrote about ‘A Brand Called You’ on www.fastcompany.com, suggests that the only right way to do this is to simply start now.

Rachelson suggests starting with her book ‘Branding and Marketing YOU’, that shares innovative and powerful ways to help you build and market your personal brand. In it, you will find the best practices of nine inspiring, highly successful South Africans who have used personal branding to market themselves to great effect. It also delves into the importance of being in control of your personal brand and maintaining a strong sense of awareness around the fact that everything you do, puts you in a position to influence perception advantageously.

To this end, www.businessinsider.com reports that it only takes seven seconds to make a first impression – a very short moment to make a lasting impact. Rachelson adds that ‘it’s very difficult to change perceptions once they have been created but if you are prepared and can control the moment through a positive encounter, you put yourself at an advantage.’

In most business situations, you only get one chance to market yourself and www.psychologytoday.com says that one of the best ways to take advantage of this is to give people a reason to trust and value you – achieve this and www.cmdsonline.com says you will not only secure long-term advocacy but also higher conversion rates, bigger transactions, shorter sales cycles, better retention and stronger referrals – now that is personal branding done right, online and all the way to the bank.

For more on Donna Rachelson, visit www.donnarachelson.com. Donna is a driven entrepreneur with a passion for helping women and entrepreneurs to make their mark. As an active advocate for diversity, she drives her agenda through the books she has authored, the keynote presentations she delivers, the media opinions she provides and the ecosystem lobbying she spearheads. In her current role as CEO and shareholder of Seed Engine, which includes Seed Academy and the WDB Growth Fund, she focuses on social impact and creating economic inclusion through entrepreneurship.

Start failing fast and forward for business success

Entrepreneurship is difficult and as statistics show, not everybody who sets out to run a business succeeds. There are countless stories of those who have failed many times before they have become successful – including a fascinating report by smallbiztrends.com of 21 international entrepreneurs who failed big before becoming a success.

More prominently, Richard Branson is well known for his share of mistakes and wrong turns that led him to start over 100 businesses during the course of his now, very successful career at Virgin Group. CNBC.com recently reported that he, along with other entrepreneurial greats, all agree that failure is an important life lesson that makes you better.

In fact, 90% of start-ups fail, according to entrepreneur.com – and some of the reasons why are completely avoidable. Locally, SME South Africa reports on some of the more recognised entrepreneurs including Miles Kubheka of Vuyo’s Restaurant Chain, Jannie Mouton of PSG Group, Raymond Ackerman of Pick n Pay and John Sanei of Primi Piatti Restaurants, that tend to concur that the more you fail, the more your chance of success increases.

According to Donna Rachelson, CEO of Seed Engine, ‘the majority of business owners in South Africa are failing because it is very simply, a key characteristic of entrepreneurship. Rachelson runs the longest standing entrepreneurial survey in the country, known as ‘The Real State of Entrepreneurship,’ which reviews the South African business landscape on an annual basis. In the survey’s latest results, it highlights just how slowly entrepreneurs are failing and because of this, how poor their resilience is when it comes to adapting, improving and ultimately, tailoring their business for success.

‘In South Africa, we tend to have a mind-set that failure is bad and in many cases, entrepreneurs will carry on attempting to make their businesses work, even if the fundamentals are flawed and there is little chance of success. One of the hardest lessons to learn as an entrepreneur is when to ‘let go’. A business generally takes far longer and requires much more money to get off the ground than you can predict and you need to be able to recognise that critical point at which you determine whether it’s actually going to succeed or not. The more you put this into practice, the quicker you will move forward and succeed,’ says Rachelson.

Rachelson refers to this as ‘failing fast’ and ‘failing forward’ and encourages entrepreneurs running out of funds and resources to be honest with themselves about where they are in the business and whether it is better to keep going or rather take their key learnings in a time of failure and create something new – something better. This, she says, is one of the hardest things for a business owner to do and has the following advice for failing fast – ‘Get an outside opinion to give yourself perspective on where you are and where you need to be. Set yourself timelines and milestones and take action when you are not reaching them. Acknowledge when you might be too close or emotionally attached to your business idea and recognise when it is okay to let go. Most importantly, if you are going to ‘fail forward,’ you need to take the time to really understand what went wrong, in as much depth as you can. Keep asking yourself ‘why’ – only then can you honestly reflect on what you could have done differently and how you can employ this in your next venture.

If you are struggling to identify what the cause of your failure is, consider attending a local F*uck Up Night – a event series that’s part of a global movement designed to share the stories of a handful of people just like you, who have been through professional failure and come out the other side stronger – or reading through their Global Failure Index that geo-locates businesses that have failed and the reasons why.

Rachelson expands on this by saying that ‘we need to embed a culture of entrepreneurship where failure is seen as part of the journey and an opportunity to learn. This will make it easier for business owners to take risks and be open to them not working out. We also need to create a culture of transparency where failures in entrepreneurial development programmes are openly shared. Enterprise Supplier Development providers have an integral role to play here, helping new, black-owned SMMEs to understand their downfalls and providing them with the support and skills they need to grow into more sustainable entities that can meaningfully contribute towards economic growth and job creation. It is these honest conversations, rather than passing them from one incubator to the next, that will help business owners learn quicker and improve faster in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.’

‘In fact, I would even go so far as to say that this would help them to attract investors sooner too. Venture capitalists, especially abroad, view failure as one of an entrepreneur’s most valuable assets because it has taught them to watch for their mistakes, continuously find ways to be better and to always be prepared for fight.’

A report on inc.com backs this up by stating that in the past, investors only wanted to fund entrepreneurs with a proven track record but are now becoming keenly aware of the virtues and values of those who have made professional errors – and that one of their most critical tasks nowadays is to evaluate whether a business owner’s previous failures are due to a lack of experience or a lack of talent. Ultimately, the difference between these will determine the potential for long-term success.

If you are asking yourself where you fall on this spectrum, consider qz.com’s view on the ‘dark night’ rite of passage – something that all entrepreneurs go through but very few talk about, except for those brave front runners who share their experience at events like Fail Con. And then consider joining them in studying their failures, as well as your own.

This is how you fail forward and build something bigger next time – faster.

For more on Donna Rachelson, visit www.donnarachelson.com. Donna is a driven entrepreneur with a passion for helping women and entrepreneurs to make their mark. As an active advocate for diversity, she drives her agenda through the books she has authored, the keynote presentations she delivers, the media opinions she provides and the ecosystem lobbying she spearheads. In her current role as CEO and shareholder of Seed Engine, which includes Seed Academy and the WDB Growth Fund, she focuses on social impact and creating economic inclusion through entrepreneurship. Seed Engine builds the skills and capacity of youth and women entrepreneurs and supports them to grow and scale their businesses through high impact business development support, access to markets and funding. Visit Seed Engine at www.seedengine.co.za.

© Donna Rachelson. All Rights Reserved.