The Missing Link in Leadership: Gender Equality

The world of work has seen significant progress in diversity and inclusion initiatives over the years, yet one challenge remains persistent: the lack of women in leadership positions. Despite the fact that women are better educated than ever before and bring invaluable skills and perspectives to the workplace, they continue to be underrepresented in positions of authority across the globe.

This is not only an issue of equity but also of lost potential as research has shown that diverse teams make better decisions and are more innovative. So, why does this leadership inequality persist? And more importantly, what can we do to address it?

In this article, we’ll explore the lack of female leaders in positions of power and delve into the changes that are needed to better accommodate them.

The numbers don’t lie

Today, women account for around 30% of all leadership positions, a notable increase since the 1880s. While it is truly inspiring to see the strides we’ve made towards gender disparity in the workplace, we have to acknowledge that this progress has been extremely slow and uneven. The reality is that in many sectors, the glass ceiling is still firmly in place, and women continue to face barriers to advancement.

The farther up the corporate ladder you go, the less women you see. Mercer’s 2020 analysis of over 1,100 global organisations revealed a leaky pipeline for women in leadership positions, with the following percentages of women in different levels:

  • Executives: 23%
  • Senior managers: 29%
  • Managers: 37%
  • Professionals: 42%
  • Support staff: 47%

Redefining leadership criteria

This leadership inequality is not due to a lack of qualified candidates. Women are graduating from college and graduate school at higher rates than men and are entering the workforce in larger numbers. However, they face significant barriers in their path to leadership roles, including unconscious bias, lack of mentorship opportunities, and the difficulty of balancing work and family responsibilities.

Nanda Scott, Group Chief Human Capital Officer at inq., believes that it is time to rethink our understanding and assessment of leadership. The underrepresentation of women in positions of authority is particularly concerning because women bring unique perspectives, experiences, and skills that are essential for driving success and progress in any organisation or society.

The lack of gender diversity in leadership roles is highlighted by PwC South Africa’s 2022 executive directors’ report, which found that only 15% of the JSE executive population, including CEOs and CFOs, is female. This data is a stark reminder that while progress has been made, there is still much work to be done to achieve gender parity in leadership positions.

However, there is hope on the horizon. Africa is leading the charge when it comes to female leadership representation, with Grant Thornton’s “Women in Business 2021” report indicating that the percentage of female leadership in Africa increased from 29% in 2017 to 39% in 2021. This upward trend suggests that by prioritising diversity and inclusion, organisations can create more opportunities for women to excel in leadership roles and help close the gender gap.

Gender equality is not a box-ticking exercise

In recent years, we’ve seen a surge of initiatives aimed at promoting inclusion and gender diversity in the workplace. These include targeted recruitment efforts, unconscious bias training, and individual development programs for women, which often include mentoring, sponsorship, and coaching. While these efforts are certainly steps in the right direction, they alone are not enough to guarantee that women will reach management positions or be valued in the same way as men. The real key to achieving true equality lies with the leaders of an organisation.

Leaders have a crucial role to play in setting the standard for the types of behaviours they want their employees to adopt. They need to actively demonstrate and promote gender equality in their own actions and attitudes and provide their employees with the skills and feedback necessary to practise equality as part of their day-to-day job. It’s only by making equality a fundamental way of working that organisations will truly become equal.

It’s not enough to simply meet diversity targets or run training programs. Instead, leaders must work to create an inclusive culture that values and respects all employees, regardless of their gender. They must actively seek out the perspectives and ideas of all employees and ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute to the business’s success.

Changes needed

To address the gender gap in leadership, we need to create a culture of inclusivity that accommodates women and supports their leadership aspirations. Here’s how

  • Flexible work arrangements: Many women face significant challenges balancing work and family responsibilities. To accommodate their needs, employers should offer flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, flexible schedules, and part-time work. This can help women better manage their time and reduce stress, allowing them to focus on their careers and achieve their full potential.
  • Equal pay and benefits: It is no secret that the gender pay gap is a persistent problem across industries and regions. Women are often paid less than their male counterparts for the same job, which can create financial barriers to their leadership aspirations. Employers should ensure that women are paid fairly and have access to the same benefits as men. This can help create a level playing field and empower women to pursue leadership positions.
  • Mentorship and sponsorship: Mentorship and sponsorship are critical components of leadership development, particularly for women. Employers should provide mentorship and sponsorship opportunities to women, particularly those from underrepresented groups. This can help women build their networks, develop their skills, and gain visibility within their organisations.
    • Inclusive policies and practices: Employers should adopt inclusive policies and practices that promote gender balance in leadership. This can include setting diversity targets, implementing diversity and inclusion metrics, and tracking progress over time.

    What can HR do to help drive change?

    HR departments have a critical role to play in creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces. They are the ones responsible for hiring, promoting, and developing talent, and can use this power to create more opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups. By developing policies and procedures that promote gender equality, they can create a culture that supports women’s career advancement.

    In addition, HR professionals can collaborate with hiring managers to develop recruitment strategies that attract and retain a diverse pool of candidates. A diverse workforce brings fresh perspectives and ideas to the table, which can be key to driving innovation and success in any organisation.

    From inclusivity policies to real action: It’s time for concrete change

    Ultimately, achieving gender parity in leadership positions requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders. This includes individual women and men advocating for themselves and their colleagues, as well as company leaders and policymakers implementing policies and programs that promote diversity and inclusion. Only by working together can we break down the barriers that hold women back and create a future where women are equally represented in leadership positions.