Published by: Skills Portal - 2007 

Women in the workplace are still not getting their share of top executive positions and according to the latest unemployment figures, more females are unemployed than men in South Africa.

According to StatsSA unemployment figures for the second quarters of 2010 and 2011 show the number of unemployed women increased by 124,000, compared to only 13,000 men joining the ranks of the unemployed. (Figures rounded off by StatsSA).

While the call for gender equity laws to enforce more jobs for women in senior management positions in South African companies by Lulu Xingwana, Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities has been widely discussed, executive head hunters believe legislation alone will not bring about gender transformation in the workplace.

We need pro-active changes in both corporate structures and cultures if 50% of appointments to South Africa’s senior business and political positions are to be filled by women. Although the sentiment of ensuring that women are equally represented in top jobs is a praiseworthy one, we’re a little skeptical about the viability of legislation being the key driver.

The reasons for gender inequality in the workplace are multiple, but one of the main problems is that the workplace remains structurally geared towards a strict eight-to-five day with employees required to be present in the office for the entirety of the day; and where any deviation from this is seen as unhelpful or problematic to systems and processes. Furthermore, at executive levels, meetings are often scheduled before and after the ‘official’ working hours, placing additional pressure on working women with families.

Even though women are progressing up the career ladder, too many still find themselves having to choose between their families or their careers, primarily due to lack of support in the business environment.

In our patriarchal society (and South Africa is not alone), women tend to carry the predominant responsibility for managing basic family needs, and are therefore often disadvantaged by unsympathetic employers who remain attached to old working patterns.

The solution is nothing new - companies and Boards have been talking about how to retain their senior female staff for years - but there remains a struggle to break away from old hiring patterns, with decision makers preferring to stick to that with which they are familiar.

When organisations, from small to multi-national, are able to implement family-friendly policies and procedures which will enable professional women to compete in their jobs without being ‘marked down’ for juggling work and child-rearing commitments, we’ll see real change. Flexi-time and the introduction of the ‘remote office’ are helpful steps towards the ‘female transformation agenda’ and will provide women with the tools and the flexibility to effectively manage both career and family.

But achieving this requires a mindset reorientation within corporate culture, as well as structural interventions, such as appointing more women in critical, strategic and profit driving roles, versus the more traditional or functional roles such as administration, marketing or human resources.

It’ll be the companies that implement modern strategies, who will benefit the most from a transformed workforce, because Boards with diversity are often more innovative and less inclined to stick to old patterns or groupthink.

Lulu Xingwana’s call for the implementation of gender equity laws in the workplace is not a solitary one. In January, France’s parliament approved a new law which would force companies to increase their Board female representation to 40% by 2016. Spain has also introduced a quota of 40%, to be reached by 2015, with Italy and the Netherlands contemplating similar measures.

Madge Gibson is a Partner at Jack Hammer Executive Headhunters. She has a BA (Hons), MDP. Madge originally trained as a reporter in the Business Information sector and spent several years in London working within Financial Services, Corporate Finance and M&A. She maintains a broad network and has been responsible for the successful placement of several senior executives in South Africa. In addition to this, Madge also studied Business Management at the University of Stellenbosch, and holds qualifications in Marketing.

Article by : Madge Gibson