Globally, there is a growing awareness that gender equality at the top level of business translates into better business. Several high-profile research reports, including those from McKinsey & Co, Catalyst and the World Economic Forum, highlight that organizations with the highest percentage of women on boards outperform others in terms of returns on equity, sales and invested capital.
As a result of this awareness, specific initiatives are being launched to attract and retain top women in the business world. One such initiative is the 30% Club. It was launched in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2010, and its goal is to drive the increase of women on FTSE-100 boards to 30% by the end of 2015. The 30% Club is a group of business leaders committed to achieving better gender balance at all levels of organizations.
The 30% Club asserts that diverse boards make businesses more efficient, effective and ultimately more profitable. So far, progress has been made: it has achieved a steady increase from 12.6% in 2010 to 22.2% currently. In South Africa, however, such progress is lacking.
Sadly, there is still a dearth of women in senior management and board positions. It is not necessarily that the leadership opportunities do not exist, but rather that women are opting for alternative career models outside of the corporate world in search of career progression.
This does not bode well for corporate South Africa. Clearly, organizations are not thinking strategically around how to attract, develop and retain talented female professionals.
Without doubt, a new approach is required. Talent management solutions, for example, should be gender-neutral. Smart organizations understand the benefits of gender equality in the boardroom, but they fail to ‘walk the talk’.
Instead of uttering the right statements in the press, businesses need to develop solutions that offer women (and men) more incentives to remain in the corporate world. While women are no more difficult to employ than men, creativity and innovation needs to be applied to attract and keep the best employees. Following the lead of organizations such as Google Inc., organizations should be creating cultures and career models that attract women and cater to their different workplace needs and requirements.
Deloitte LLP provides an interesting case study – the company has become a leader in workplace innovation with its innovative agile working program. The company allows all employees to request a formal flexible working arrangement and enjoy a block of four weeks of unpaid leave each year.
In the UK, the 30% Club is achieving its aims without mandatory quotas, in line with the belief that voluntary business-led action is the way to achieve meaningful change. In SA, our complex history of mandatory reforms poses critical questions around mandated gender equality.
While the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) draft Bill – which is calling for 50% female representation across all senior and top management positions – is undoubtedly powerful, we believe that if corporates are not voluntarily putting strategies in place to continually attract and retain women, sustainable and meaningful change is unlikely.
Ultimately, the ideal solution requires a cooperative approach between government and business to establish a framework that makes commercial sense. If we look to countries such as Iceland and the Nordic states, where gender equality has been achieved, this type of partnership and framework exists. According to the WEF Gender Gap Report of 2013, the Nordic countries are considered leaders in gender equality. Their labor participation rates for women are amongst the highest in the world and salary gaps between men and women (although still present) are amongst the smallest in the world.
In SA, both government and business simply cannot afford to sit back on this issue and ‘see what happens’. A more proactive and coordinated approach is urgently required. While we wait for the WEGE bill to be enacted into law, and for initiatives like the 30% Club to gain traction, women continue to exit formal employment.
Unsurprisingly, they are turning to more flexible options, like starting their own businesses or managing smaller businesses. Talented female professionals are leaving the corporate world to find and create new business models that suit their goals, preferences and desires. For corporate South Africa, the most worrying part of this equation is that these women are taking their valuable institutional knowledge and much needed skills and experience with them.
The writer is director of Tuesday Consulting, an executive search firm in Johannesburg.