We, Men For Women

Published 6 years ago

“Men still, and have, historically, wielded significant power. This is an issue that has primarily affected women. In order to bring about change, men need to be a part of the solution and men haven’t made it a priority.”

These are the words of Samuel Mensah, Founder of African fashion brand, Kisua. He is one of a growing number of men in South Africa fighting to make gender equality a priority in business.

An icy wind blows through Johannesburg on this July morning but there is warmth and fellowship as Mensah is joined by Gil Oved, Group Co-CEO of The Creative Counsel; Dion Shango, CEO and Regional Senior Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC); and Dean Peacock, Co-Founder of civil society group Sonke Gender Justice.


These four men passionately and openly acknowledge the cause they believe in – gender-parity in business, leadership and life. What’s more, they think more men need to be roped in to fight for the cause.

“There are feminists who believe this is a women’s issue and women will deal with it. There’s another school of thought, which I come from, which says you cannot have a conversation about gender inequality and not bring in men. Men are major perpetrators of gender inequality. Boys learn to be men from other men. So this becomes an intergenerational problem if you don’t get men on your side, get men to acknowledge there is a problem, they are part of the problem, and make them part of the solution. Until this is done, women will be fighting a brave battle but it’s going to be an uphill battle,” says Mensah.

According to Bain & Company’s 2017 report, Gender (Dis)parity in South Africa, 31% of South African companies have no females in senior leadership roles. Adding to this bleak statistic is the latest Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) census on women in leadership. It indicates that 22% of board directors are women, but only 7% are executive directors. It also highlights that only 10% of South African CEOs are women. The growth of women in senior leadership roles has also been slow, increasing from 26% in 2004 to just 28% in 2017.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, earlier this year, revealed a global gender pay gap of 24%.

This is despite South Africa’s constitution and the Employment Equity Act – which should promote gender equity in the workplace – and the country having more women graduates than men. Although progress is being made, it is sluggish.

“Gender equality, up until now, has been seen to be a woman’s problem, not a man’s problem. Let’s be honest, because most platforms, structures and organizations are dominated and controlled by men today, and yes there may be some change but the pace of change is slow, it is nowhere near where it needs to be,” says Shango.


In many European countries, there’s a legal requirement that boards have a proper representation of women.

“Having clear quotas in board participation in Europe has absolutely helped. The argument is in the absence of quotas, it allows poorly-qualified men to stay in those positions,” says Peacock.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), in 2015, changed its listing requirements to prompt companies to disclose the female representation on their boards.

“As the JSE, we are committed to the transformation of our capital markets and to diversity in the workplace. In 2015, we introduced a rule requiring issuers to have a policy for the promotion of gender diversity at the board level and disclose their performance against it,” says Samkele Nkabinde, a Communications Officer at the JSE.


Companies should embrace diversity; it improves the bottom line. There are enough studies to prove this.

“Whenever there are any severe forms of inequality, quotas are helpful. They can be structured in a manner in which it is an incentive, so it’s a carrot rather than a stick. Also, beyond quotas, speaking to the spirit of what we’re trying to do here, not just the fact that it’s the right thing to do, but also waking up to the fact that there’s a lot of data now that shows businesses that have a lot of women employees across all levels of the organization tend to perform better than businesses that are male-dominated. So, not only is it the right thing to do, but gender diversity is actually good for business and the bottom line,” says Mensah, who is a qualified economist and 2014 Tutu Fellow of the African Leadership Institute.

“Economically, it reduces productivity to not use women to their full potential. I think that over time this is being called out and being addressed,” he adds.

This is backed up by research done by global advisory firm Grant Thornton. It shows listed companies with male-only boards, in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US) and India alone, are foregoing potential profits of $655 billion.


“A lot has to happen with the regulations and requirements with regards to incentives. If you talk about incentives that governments could put in place, but also for private enterprises to take responsibility and not to do it for any other reason than the profit motive. You have an amazing potential workforce and you need not do too much extra to extract a lot of value out of [women],” says Oved.

Oved and Mensah back their words with action. Oved says 80% of The Creative Counsel’s employees are women. Apart from himself and his Co-Founder, Ran Neu-Ner, all senior management positions are held by women. Similarly, the workforce of Mensah’s Kisua is 70% female, across the value chain.

“This advertising environment is very high-stress, very hands-on, requires huge emotional maturity, requires massive creativity, requires constant lateral thinking, and it just so happened that every time we interviewed people, the women came out tops. We hired some men that couldn’t handle the stress,” says Oved.

“Our business requires one to be quite sensitive, quite culturally aware and quite emotionally aware. It naturally plays to the strengths of women but we don’t have to have 70% women. I think that’s part of the reason. The other part of the reason is that we’ve made a conscious decision that women are an asset and where possible we will hire women to redress some of the imbalances,” says Mensah.


But what is it about women that makes it smart for a business to value them?

“Women are a lot more considered in how they think, in how they decide the long- and short-term merits of a particular decision. All of that takes me to my experience with the women I work with; in dealing with a problem, they bring better emotional balance in all of those factors. They come from a slightly different place and that’s a blessing to have in any organization,” says Shango.

Shango says PwC manages its partner admissions on certain criteria, including gender.

“We do aim for a particular balance of male and female representation. It’s not enshrined or cast in stone to say it must be 50%, but it is something that drives the decision on how many partners to admit in a year and whether it will portray a gender balance. And because of that it gives you a situation where that same policy informs the lower levels on how to promote people throughout the ranks. How will you ever achieve the right balance at the top if your foundation is all wrong?”

Despite all the policies and good intentions, women still slip through the cracks, especially in their ascent to senior management. Often this is due to an ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace.

“Unconscious bias is a big problem in our society. It cuts across race, across class and goes back to the societal norms and standards of how boys and girls are treated. The scary thing is even I am often guilty of it. When someone points it out to me, it’s scary and I think ‘oops, why did I think about that?’ I am passionate about gender diversity but there are also small issues that catch me out. That just goes to show you how easily one can fall into that trap,” says Shango.

It’s easy to fall into that trap because an unconscious bias comes from subtle cognitive processes. It is often culturally ingrained from childhood, in a still-patriarchal society.

“I grew up in a household with five kids, four sisters. My dad and I sat around the table at the end of the night and my sisters and my mom would get up and clean. It didn’t occur to me until I had a strongly feminist girlfriend in my late teens who said ‘that s*** needs to stop’. We get socialized in ways that are entirely invisible to us and we take those attitudes forward,” says Peacock.

These attitudes start at home. A lot of the work Peacock does at Sonke Gender Justice, which is 10 years old, revolves around gender-based violence.

“The current gender roles we live with are bad for women, because they lead to violence; and bad for men, because they lead to ill health. The top 10 diseases in the globe, men are over-represented in every single one of them, and that’s not because of genetics, it’s mostly because of our socialization. Which reflects the kind of pressures men experience and we feel we must live up to, so men drink too much, smoke too much, drive too fast, don’t take care of their bodies, kill themselves at much higher rates than women do, men suffer from mental health problems more, and so we’re able to say to men this conversation around gender equality and to end violence against women is not about men losing and women gaining, in many ways we’re all gaining,” he says.

Shango credits the house he grew up in for shaping his attitudes towards women.

“I was raised by strong women. I had a mother and a father but the people I continue to draw the most inspiration from are my mom and my grandmother. They are two incredibly strong women.”

One of the reasons he is taking that legacy forward is his children.

“I am a father of two girls and a young boy. I would like to think that the world they are growing up in will give my daughters equal opportunities that it will give my son.”

Starting a family, however, is part of the problem. Women, not men, are the ones who have to put their careers on hold when they fall pregnant.

“Companies can adjust policies to retain their bright talent. I don’t want to lose somebody because they go on maternity leave. I don’t want to lose someone because they have to leave early to go pick up the kids from school, or they have to work from home because there is a taxi strike and the nanny can’t get to the house. I think with flexibility, employers can retain their staff. I don’t buy into that line of thought that women, because of the gender roles they fulfil, have to be at a natural disadvantage,” says Shango.

Peacock is trying to eliminate this disadvantage. He’s pushing for paternity leave for both men and women.

“There’s research to show that if it’s only women who have parenting leave, then women are discriminated against in the workplace because they know that women, and only women, will leave for a protracted period of time. That’s why we’re pushing for paternity leave in South Africa; it’s good for men, it’s good for women,” he says.

Oved, with his finger on the pulse of technological innovation, goes even further.

“We have to find a way to give a woman the confidence to go and have children and continue to be a mother but still add value to the organization that she’s at and to be able to grow in her career. Very often women are faced with the choice of which one is it going to be. This scenario is ludicrous,” says Oved.

“With today’s technology you can do that. You can work from home, you can work flexi hours – the world has changed but, certainly in South Africa, I haven’t seen that change manifest itself in gender equalization.”

Oved admits he’s concerned about job losses and the obvious financial implications that the looming robotics revolution will bring. He suspects it will affect women less than men.

“Women form deep relationships, they are natural connectors. I believe they will be less affected. Or the converse is that they may find they have better opportunities because the skillset that is required to survive in the new world economy is one that is a better fit for them… if you compare it to 300 years ago, when it was all labour before the industrial revolution, the hard physical labour favoured men. Compare it to now where it is more cerebral and more emotional, how much more will females do better?”

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But, if women have more qualities suited for the modern-day workplace, why is gender parity still so far away in corporate Africa – and the world?

“Corporate culture is hugely important, you only need to look at some of the tech companies – Uber and others in Silicon Valley – you can see how difficult it is to get in, and stay, at those places. Women don’t progress despite the fact that women that graduate from the most impressive universities now outnumber men. There should be plenty of women in high-status jobs in Silicon Valley but that’s not happening,” says Peacock.

“The glass ceiling is real, the old boys’ phenomenon is real, and discrimination is real,” he adds.

It is for this reason that UN Women launched its HeForShe campaign in 2014. It encourages men to take more responsibility in driving gender diversity.

“Men are half of humanity and are the majority of decision-makers; they are implicated in denying women their rights and for perpetrating violence against women. It is in our best interest to mobilize men to take action and drive change. Change means the good men must use their positions of influence to show zero tolerance to gender injustices. They can engage other men and influence behavior change because, if good men do not act positively and with a purpose, that allows the offending practices to be perpetuated. A HeForShe is a man who takes action to demonstrate positive masculinity and to influence change,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka of UN Women.

Shango has taken up the cause and proudly wears a HeForShe pin on his lapel.

“It was a no-brainer for our global Chairman at the time, Mr. Dennis Nally, to sign PwC up as one of the founding members. For me, what it does is it takes an unbalanced population at PwC, particularly at leadership level, and really makes sure that this problem is front of mind among a larger majority of this population you are targeting. It’s a slightly different way of positioning the discussion. It places the agenda on the table of the people who run this business and who are at the heart of the business,” he says.

He is also encouraged by the fact that the Chair of PwC South Africa, Shirley Machaba, is a member of the 30% Club. In South Africa, it calls for women to represent 30% of boards by 2020. According to Colleen Larsen, the President of 30% Club Southern Africa, it should not take longer than five to eight years for this target to be achieved.

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Shango thinks this will be difficult but is necessary to create a snowball effect.

“Something like the 30% Club, in the year 2030, if organizations have at least that 30% mark to show. I’m under no illusion this will be a long process, it’ll take time because we are starting from a very low base. But I think if we can get to that 30% mark, progress thereafter will be at a much faster pace.”

Preya Moodley, Head of Shared Services at Investec, did an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), titled, Is Sponsorship An Enabler To Women Breaking The Barriers To The Boardroom? It revealed that it’s imperative men are involved in achieving gender equality.

“In order to change the current narrative we require change agents who are in a position of power and influence and currently, due to numbers, this power and influence sits with men. In conducting my research I interviewed a number of very successful women, every single one of them got to where they were as a result of been sponsored by a senior male leader already occupying a position of power,” says Moodley.

Those women are now paying it forward, she says.

It is also important for children to see women they look up to.

“I think when we’re raising the next generation it’s important we start confronting these gender stereotypes that lead to the inequality that they’ll encounter later in life because you’re a woman and these are your roles. It’s something we all have to be conscious of when we’re moulding children so that boys grow up knowing, believing and seeing it as completely natural that women are just the same as them, just as capable as them. Little girls must grow up believing they can do anything and there are no constraints on their abilities. I would hate to bring up a daughter that would tolerate being paid 27% less than a man,” says Mensah.

“A lot of teaching needs to go into making girls understand they are equal to boys. They can do anything that boys can do. Nothing should limit girls at a young age in terms of thinking what they can become and the type of dreams they can have. But you still get it today, where girls are told you can’t do that, that’s more for men. If you want to be an engineer or design beautiful buildings, that’s more for men. Don’t you want to do something softer like become a doctor. Certain things are seen as a male domain only,” adds Shango.

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Most of the opinion-leaders we spoke to agree men are an important cog towards gender transformation.

“I think that in business, like in many other institutions, women need to learn various tactics. For me, the best allies are the ones that have a dense understanding and commitment to feminist ethics. Sometimes an ally with such principles could be a male colleague. These institutions are often premised on institutional inheritances, assumptions and cultures that do not need to aggressively articulate their misogyny. The best allies are the people that understand this and to whom you do not need to explain your frustrations to. The best allies are the ones who work to defamiliarize the environments that we work in by demanding complex questions and responses to questions of power in an institution,” says Danai Mupotsa, a lecturer in African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Oved says there is no silver bullet to this issue. Everyone needs to work together, but most of all, women need to promote themselves and tell their stories.

“It requires a mix of government intervention, private enterprise commitment, of societal commitment, and very importantly, women have an obligation, not a right, not a privilege, an obligation to tell their story. Again, part of the cultural screw-up of this country is ‘oh, I want to be humble, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m showing off’. But the wrong people are showing off. If you’re a successful woman, you’re not a show-off by telling your story. It feels inaccessible. If you’re a girl growing up in a township, with not much access, and you look at successful women, it’s so far from your life that it doesn’t have much impact on you. But wouldn’t it be great if you were to find out that that person you look up to actually started where you are or worse off,” says Oved.

This is partly a cultural problem, according to Shango.

“There are societal norms enforced at a young age. To make it even more difficult, there are certain cultural practises that make it unacceptable for women to speak up,” he says.

“As a practical example, people join us at PwC as graduates from university. You have two people. One a white male, outspoken, boisterous, loud, confident and a little bit arrogant. On the other hand, you have a black female who grew up in a rural area. Compared to the white male who grew up in Bryanston or Pretoria, this young lady was brought up to believe that you don’t talk back to people who are older than you and you shy away from confrontation. They both come here from the same university with the same qualification. By virtue of his personality and just how he is, the white male strikes a good relationship with the manager who also happens to be male. Every Monday, they’ll talk about the sport that happened over the weekend, they will talk about what is happening later in the week and they’ll have one or two interests, such as mountain biking. This lady has a completely different set of interests, very different background… In that context, guess who stands a better chance of being seen as the leading performer on that team. That poor girl stands no chance, simply by virtue of the cards she was dealt in life, the circumstances she was born into,” says Shango.

“Someone needs to say to that girl ‘you need to market yourself, you need to be a bit more aggressive in demonstrating to the manager the value you are adding to the team, the great work you’re doing’.”

Shango, however, is optimistic about the future.

“I’m inspired by how girls are growing up differently. I’m inspired by how my own daughters challenge me and put me in my place.”

When I ask Shango if his daughters, aged 12 and 10, want to have traditionally male-oriented careers, such as engineering, he says they don’t know yet.

“All they know is they don’t want to be an accountant like their dad. They say it’s boring,” he says with a chuckle.

Maybe one day they’ll realize that their dad does a lot more than crunching numbers. Most of all he is part of an important discourse towards what will one day hopefully be a gender-just world and an equal society.

Do We Need Male Allies?

“For me, the best allies are the ones that have a dense understanding and commitment to feminist ethics. Sometimes an ally with such principles could be a male colleague… The best allies are the ones who work to defamiliarize the environments we work in by demanding complex questions and responses to questions of power in an institution.” – Danai Mupotsa, Lecturer, African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

“Of course we need men advocating for feminism. In the patriarchal world we live in, men hold the power and voice to exact change. It is important that they acknowledge and use their male privilege to dismantle the system that confines their behaviors too. Men are also trapped within the confines of ‘masculinity’ and our fight for feminism includes destroying gender binaries and expectations such as relating masculinity to men and femininity to women. For these reasons, men are essential to the feminist movement, so long as their voices don’t override the voices of the oppressed.” – Nithya Ramesh, Rising sophomore at Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

“It is in our best interest to mobilize men to take action and drive change. Change means the good men must use their positions of influence to show zero tolerance to gender injustices…” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women

“In order to change the current narrative we require change agents who are in a position of power and influence and currently, due to numbers, this power and influence sits with men.” – Preya Moodley, Head of Shared Services at Investec, who did an MBA at GIBS titled Is Sponsorship An Enabler To Women Breaking The Barriers To The Boardroom?

“Getting to a truly inclusive and transformed workplace requires the commitment of leadership at a strategic and personal level. And men are still overwhelmingly at the apex of the corporate leadership pyramid and occupy the C-suite positions and chairs of boards. Therefore, it makes sense that men, like women who are championing the cause, become the real champions to create truly inclusive work environments… They are driving this change in mind-set and behaviour by  becoming role models for other men. There are some outstanding champions promoting gender equality. I know this from the research we conducted for a book we just had published, Women Leadership in Emerging Markets.” – Shireen Chengadu, Lecturer, Gordon Institute of Business Science

“Men and women need to create interventions that target and support progressive men; while challenging societal stereotypes that belittle them. Each one of us men and women has to be a change agent for the emancipation of humanity across, gender, race and all social identities, if equity is to be achieved in our lifetime.” – Judy Dlamini, leading South African entrepreneur and author of Equal But Different

“In order to achieve gender equality we really need men to assist as change agents. We need them to be part of the conversation, to step up and take action that promotes women fairly. Research points to the outright success of companies and countries that have homogenous mixes of gender. Our time is now and our attributes are being recognized as an imperative to success. Nelson Mandela stepped up to assist women on their trajectory to this ideal. Without imposing unnecessary quotas, to this day, women are well represented in government in South Africa. Those heady days where women were respected for their difference, intuition and compassion were special and South Africa was a shining example to the rest of the world.” – Wendy Appelbaum, leading South African entrepreneur

“I think that men have a very important part to play as the power is currently vested in them. They could share this power with women and that will advance women. They will of course also need to sponsor women and expose them to stretch assignments and support them to get access to their networks.” – Caren Scheepers, Senior Lecturer, GIBS

“As males continue to dominate and occupy a pivotal role in driving the continent’s agenda, there is no denying male advocates are essential for us to see the progression of women… for our continent to move forward, for us to see the realization of Agenda 2063 of a prosperous Africa, we need diverse voices at all levels of society.” – Lebogang Chaka, business advisor and speaker