Women will fail in the workplace unless SA businesses act

If companies continue to hire and promote women at current rates, the number of women in management will increase by just one percentage point over the next ten years, according to recent research published by McKinsey in the USA. But if companies start hiring and promoting women and men to manage  at equal rates over the next ten years, parity in management will be close — 48 percent women versus 52 percent men.

In South Africa, which lags the US in workplace trends, we haven’t made significant strides. Year after year, the majority of senior executives in South Africa are men. In July last year, only one of the JSE’s Top 40 companies had a female CEO.

Although workplace discrimination is legislated and awareness is growing of what’s holding women back, ultimately it is the men in executive positions who can make the most difference by hiring and promoting women at managerial level.

Never mind a level playing field, are women even on the pitch?

In my view, we are past debating the integral role women play in growing economies. Research shows that companies with more women in senior positions are more profitable. So, why the disparity?

The McKinsey study shows that in the US for more than 30 years, women have been earning more degrees than men. They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men. This evidence negates perceptions that women are less educated, do not negotiate for promotions and increases at the same rates and spend less time in the workforce than their male counterparts.

To close the gender gap in business, we need robust discussions with men around thinking differently about women and work. If mostly male leaders view gender diversity as a business imperative, they will work to understand the challenges women face in the workplace and take bolder steps to support and advocate for change.

Female representation in senior positions

In South Africa, despite making up more than half of our population, women executives are underrepresented and underpaid. As many as 20% of South African companies have no women in senior roles.

The two biggest drivers of representation are hiring and promotions.  Companies are disadvantaging women in these areas from the beginning of their careers. Women are less likely to be hired into entry-level jobs. At the first critical step up to managerial roles, the disparity widens further. Women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and they are far less likely to be promoted into them. It follows that men hold the majority of manager positions. This early inequality impacts the talent pipeline, making it very difficult for women to catch up.

Barriers for women in business

Managerial support and access to senior leaders are significant and widely accepted barriers for women in business. But there are others. Everyday discrimination, or microaggression, can appear in subtle ways and is amplified towards people perceived as having less power, such as women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and black people. This seems small when dealt with individually, but when repeated over time, it adds up to a sense of unfairness at work.

Examples of microaggression are women having to provide more evidence of their competence than men and having their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. They are also twice as likely as men to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position.

Sexual harassment continues to pervade the workplace.  While it is true that most companies have policies that make it clear sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, many employees think their companies are not sufficiently putting policies into practice.

Women who are ‘the only’ female at their management level are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. They are more likely to have their abilities challenged, to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks and to feel as if they cannot talk about their personal lives at work. These women are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers. Interestingly, when asked how it feels to be the only man in the room, men who are the only men among female peers most frequently say they feel included.

What can be done?

The first step is to get the basics right. 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 person at their managerial level.

Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair and don’t make assumptions about what women with families want or don’t want.

Recognise unconscious biases and microaggression and ensure that senior leaders become advocates of diversity. Foster an inclusive and respectful culture that provides opportunities for women to showcase their achievements and ask for promotions on account of their work. Women tend to resist presenting new ideas or concepts until they are perfect, whereas their male counterparts are typically more willing to take the risk of putting their thoughts across without considering all the options.

Offer employees flexibility and consider creative ways to bring women who have taken a break in their career back into the workplace.

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 it involves senior leaders.