If you were to review the Economic Freedom of the World Annual Report, you would note that South Africa scores 1.00 on the Gender Disparity Index, indicating that there is no legal difference in how women are treated relative to men under the law.
This enshrined equality is a hallmark of the country’s constitution, which has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the world.
The keyword here is ‘legal’ because, despite this constitutionally protected equality, education and employment inequality still exists.
According to Stats SA, unemployment rates for men currently reside at 31,4%, while rates for women were pegged at almost three percent higher (34,0%). Of this group, black African women were highlighted as the most vulnerable, with an unemployment rate of 38,3%.
Mary Bomela, member of YPO South Africa and CEO at Mineworkers Investment Company (MIC), believes that while gender inequality is a global issue, it is more pronounced in Africa than in other parts of the world.
“According to research, female representation in board roles in South Africa is around 17%. In African culture, our lineage entails that boys typically emerge as heads of tribes or households, and these structures are deeply entrenched in society. It stands to reason that this would have a bearing on business.”
For Matsi Modise, YPO South Africa member and founding CEO of Furaha Afrika Holdings, she believes that men – and yes, women too – are still uncomfortable with the concept of a successful woman.
Modise would know: she chairs a number of boards, has founded a successful company, is recognised as a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and has won numerous awards for her work to disrupt the status quo and drive dialogue, action and change.
Modise believes that this lingering discomfort in the face of female-owned success is a symptom of a patriarchal society, and admits that it also “makes relationships challenging.”
Bomela, who was an independent Non-Executive Director of FirstRand between 2011-2020 and serves on a number of other boards – agrees.
She shares, “Growing up with many sisters and a mother who worked, I didn’t understand the notion of ‘a woman’s place’. I entered the workplace with my ambitions firmly intact. When I entered mining, a male-dominated industry, I was the only woman – and one of colour – around the executive table. It was then that I started to understand that there were those who would treat me differently because of this.”
The need for sponsorship
This is where a sponsor can play an important role in helping one navigate the playing field, and conquer the obstacles in their path.
Modise says, “Sadly, in my career, my opportunities have not come about from other women opening doors for me. Another unfortunate side effect of a patriarchal society is that it often turns you, as an ambitious women, into an enemy of other women, as it has been ingrained in us that our value rests in a man’s approval – hence we perceive each other’s success as a threat.
“I want to shift this paradigm. I want to sponsor. I strive to be approachable; to be available. I believe it’s our responsibility to help other women up the ladder.
“I always say, change your mindset: be a victor, not a victim. Helping someone else get a foot in the door doesn’t take anything away from our success; it only enriches our own professional and personal development.”
Pay attention to what you teach
We need to pay attention to what we are teaching and showing those around us, specifically our children – because that’s where it starts, says Bomela. “We need to unlearn the presiding narrative that exists in our homes, communities, churches and businesses; that a girl child cannot do certain things; that a woman’s needs or dreams are secondary to that of her role in relation to a man – as a sister, wife, or as a mother.
“We need to actively work to change this – as both women and men. We need to watch the language we use, which, in turn, perpetuates certain gender stereotypes. It is not enough to give people equal opportunity, we also need to remove our unconscious bias.
Ultimately, wider representation around the boardroom table will being with it diverse opinions, experiences and learnings, which will only make for richer ideas, and a more resilient business,” she adds.
The power of your network
Just as having a sponsor who is invested in your success can play a contributing role in helping eradicate the inequality that still exists, so can a network be an equally powerful door – but the responsibility is on you to open it, says Modise.
As a member of YPO, a global leadership community, Modise maintains that connecting with other CEOs and business leaders has brought about significant opportunities for her.
“There is something to be said for belonging to a community of your peers, who are exceptional leaders in their own right. Having this interaction and engagement spurs you on to become a better leader and person, through learning from each other in an inclusive, safe forum.“My advice to other women would be to actively seek or establish a network; nurture and expand it; and then take advantage of the opportunities it unlocks for you.”