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Women in leadership – Is gender equity still an issue?


In South Africa, women occupy 28% of business leadership positions, a percentage which rose by 5% over the past year, according to the 2016 McKinsey Women Matter (Africa) Report. Some argue that progress is finally being made towards gender equity. So, are women still underrepresented in senior management? 

The answer is yes. We need to examine a missed opportunity in gender inequity and the many reasons that the gap still persists. 

What is at stake? 

Gender equity does matter. At a time when we need strong leaders to guide us through challenging economic and political times, leadership talent is being lost. There is an 18% leakage of women at the stage between professional positions and senior management positions. This represents a lost opportunity for business. 

At board level, these numbers look even worse. Women start out at an average of 47% representation at professional level, which drops to 13% at board level. McKinsey found that the earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margin of those businesses with at least a quarter share of women on their boards was on average 20% higher than the industry average. This is another lost opportunity for business. 

Of course, a positive correlation between the proportion of women in senior positions and financial performance does not necessarily imply causation. However, leaders with whom McKinsey conducted interviews stressed how the benefits of diversity extend to areas such as risk management, decision-making, and board dynamics – all of which can have an impact on financial performance.

The Grant Thornton International Business Report of March this year similarly found that risk management is enhanced as the diversity of boards increases. This study surveyed 5 500 male and female business leaders and found that they ranked risk fairly similarly, and yet women brought a different response to risk – a more nuanced and balanced one. Thus, diversity and gender equity are not a mere matter of equal numbers.

More than just a numbers game

There remains disparity in how employees are treated on the basis of gender alone. Some women simply opt out of executive roles. But this alone is insufficient to explain women’s persistent underrepresentation in leadership roles. Gender bias in workplace structures causes invisible and pervasive barriers for women. 

A gender wage gap persists as found by the SABPP and research Prof Anita Bosch, as women globally on average receive 77c against the R1.00 that men receive for similar work. According to research by Eagly & Heilman Compared to men, women are less likely: 
  • to hold positions with authority; 
  • to have opportunity for promotion; 
  • to be rewarded in their roles; and
  • to be part of networks and support systems.

Making gender bias visible

One of the ways to address gender bias is to make it more visible and to educate leaders and staff about the impact of unconscious bias on workplace practices.   

Cultural assumptions inadvertently benefit men, while putting women at a disadvantage. For example, businesses have: 
  • a paucity of role models for women; 
  • gendered career paths and gendered work; 
  • women’s lack of access to networks and sponsors; and
  • women trapped in ‘double binds’. 

In most cultures masculinity and leadership are closely linked: the ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, caretaking and unselfish. Numerous studies have shown that women who excel in traditionally male domains are viewed as competent but less likable than their male counterparts. So women find themselves in a double bind as Ibarra, Ely & Kolb explain: whether they adopt more masculine behaviours or more feminine qualities, both are deemed inappropriate leadership behaviours for women. 

Another source of unconscious bias is the ‘glass cliff’. This suggests that women are more likely than men to be appointed to organisations that are struggling, in crisis, or at risk of failure. Along with this, the ‘saviour effect’ suggests that when women are promoted to top leadership positions, confidence in their leadership will be tenuous. As a result, women will enjoy shorter tenures than men and be more likely to be replaced by men should their firms experience negative growth under their leadership as Cook & Glass found in their research. In both instances the bias is setting women up for failure, which in turn perpetuates the myth that women leaders are weak.

Women as token ‘soft’ appointments

Decision-makers often reserve more attractive positions – including leadership positions – for in-group members; in most cases men appoint men. When women are promoted, they may feel like token appointments, where their promotions are based on targets rather than competency. Increased visibility of women leaders is likely to reduce the pressures associated with token status, to increase their access to professional networks, and to support performance success. 

Building leadership identity

Stepping into leadership requires an internalising of a leadership identity. This is acquired through taking on new roles and responsibilities, experimenting, and affirming new behaviours. This is challenging for women, who must first establish credibility.

Companies should encourage women to build communities in which similarly positioned women can compare notes, and emotionally support one another’s learning. 

Turning the tide on gender equity

What is needed to turn the tide on gender inequity?  Ibarra & co find the following
  • Hold open conversations around gender bias and its impact, as well as the lost opportunities this poses for risk management, innovation and change.
  • Encourage diverse leadership styles.
  • Revisit workplace processes around recruitment, promotion and placements. 
  • Activate sponsorship, not just mentorship, for women leaders.
  • Encourage leadership purpose in line with the business leadership strategy. 
Support safe ‘identity workspaces’ for leadership transitions through women’s leadership development programmes.

McKinsey gives four actions that businesses ought to take to redress gender imbalance:
  • Make gender diversity a top board and CEO priority;
  • Anchor gender diversity strategies in a compelling business case;
  • Confront limiting attitudes towards women in the workplace; 
  • Implement a fact-based gender diversity strategy; and  
  • Develop gender diversity metrics by tracking pay levels, attrition rates, promotions, and organisational health.


Bersin states that diversity and inclusion are now a business strategy, not an HR programme. As firms move towards gender equity, so built-in gender bias is overcome. This frees up the development and sponsorship of women in leadership​ to advance and remain in tenure in executive posts. 

Introducing more women at leadership level introduces broader perspectives and new ways of managing problems, according to McKinsey. Diversity is key to success. It allows organisations to tap into the entire talent pool rather than deprive themselves of half of it.

Sarah Babb is an ad hoc faculty member at USB Executive Development. Her areas of expertise include leadership in transition, changing leadership identity and organisational change. She is the also the facilitator on the Conversations for Women in Leadership programme​ starting in July 2017.

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