Blocked at the top


New 2015 research from Grant Thornton reveals that women in Africa are more likely to be blocked from reaching business leadership positions by gender bias than anywhere else in the world.

The proportion of women reaching the top tier of the business world has shown little progress over the past decade globally, and learning to recognise and tackle gender bias is one of 12 recommendations set out in the report released today - Women in business: the path to leadership.

Grant Thornton’s IBR survey which focuses specifically on Women in Business researches the views and expectations of over 5400 business leaders (1,477 women; 3,927 men) in 36 economies across all industry sectors providing insights into business executive perceptions globally between September 2014 and December 2014. In South Africa 300 businesses were surveyed across all industry sectors. These businesses ranged from medium to large in size with total employment of between 100 and 399.

The proportion of business leadership roles held by women in Africa stands at 23%, ranging from 27% in South Africa (only marginally up from 2004 - 26%) to 21% in Nigeria and 19% in Botswana.

Meanwhile, 44% of female respondents from the region said gender bias was a barrier to women reaching leadership, the highest globally. And even though this view was shared by just 21% of male respondents, this was also the highest figure recorded.


Lee-Anne Bac, Director: Advisory Services at Grant Thornton and 2015 Gauteng Chairperson for the Women’s Property Network South Africa says: “The percentage of women in senior management roles in South Africa is inadequate.  The gender bias is subtle at the beginning of a career but it causes a clear separation of career paths between men and women. South Africa has a fine tradition of strong women in business as well as women political leaders but there still is much room for improvement.”

Globally, 22% of senior roles held by women is slightly up from 2004 (19%) but down from 24% last year, highlighting broad stagnation. Japan remains at the bottom of the list with just 8% of senior roles held by women, followed by Germany (14%) and India (15%). There have been pockets of improvement, however, with 26% of senior roles in the EU now occupied by women – an all-time high. This has been driven by France (33%), Sweden (28%) and Greece (27%). At the same time though the number in Latin America has fallen to 18% - an all-time low.

“We’ve heard businesses talk the talk on gender equality for decades now, but still too few are walking the walk. Aside from the moral issue of ensuring equal opportunity for all, a more representative blend of women and men in senor roles just makes good business sense,” says Bac. “If an economy is only using half its most talented people then it immediately cuts its growth potential.”

Bac adds that this presents real challenges not just for businesses but for governments, society and women too.

“Society must adjust to changes in the way we live and work; for example, the stigmatisation of men who choose to stay at home for family reasons must end. Governments can support this by facilitating shared parental leave but also building the infrastructure to allow women to thrive in the workforce,” she continues. “This could, for example, include mandating quotas for women on boards.

“In November 2013, the European parliament voted by clear majority in favour of a proposed law on mandatory quotas on the number of women on boards,” says Bac.  “And a number of countries, including France, Spain, the UK and Germany have brought in their own guidance for businesses around gender diversity.”

Women on executive boards

By contrast, only just under half (48%) of SA companies said they would support the introduction of quotas for the number of women on executive boards of large listed companies.  This is down from 52% in 2014 and from 60% in 2013.

The downward trend mirrors SA companies’ strong opposition to a proposal that’s similar to the European proposed law on mandatory quotas – namely the government’s planned imposition of gender targets for senior management positions.

But the Women Empowerment and Gender Equity Bill was withdrawn from Parliament in July last year by Minister Shabangu for further consultation, a move welcomed by business.  One of its key provisions legislated that 50% of all decision-making positions must go to women in ‘designated public bodies and designated private bodies’.

“The small number of women on boards around the world suggests that quotas may need to be introduced to produce the attention this issue requires in order to get women on equal footing with men in terms of access to the most senior positions in companies,” says Bac.  “However, the 50% target is seen to be unrealistic in the South African context and we fully support that the Bill has recently been pulled for further review.

“South African businesses would have had far too large a gap to fill should government have remained firm on its demand that half of all of decision-making positions are filled by women – the deadline was too tight.”

Support building

Worldwide, in contrast to the situation locally, the proportion of business leaders who support the idea of quotas has risen from 37% in 2013 to 47% this year, with support building in China, Europe and Latin America.

“Quotas can be contentious, particularly in South Africa where certain quota systems have largely been perceived to have failed,” adds Bac.  “One of the major problems for women is that quota systems can imply that women are not in senior positions on their own merit, but simply to meet quota requirements.”

Business in South Africa was strongly opposed to government’s quota plans as a way of addressing the shortage of women in senior positions.  Opposition was voiced from several quarters, including Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) during 2014, which argued that the 50% target is ‘unrealistic and unattainable’.

The full report, 'Women in business: the path to leadership', which outlines 12 recommendations for society, government, business and women on how to facilitate female career paths is available at GrantThornton.global.


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