The mystery of the disappearing career women

Businesswoman is sitting on the top of some luggagesPHOTO:
Businesswoman is sitting on the top of some luggagesPHOTO:

It sounds like the plot of the latest science fiction movie on Netflix; women disappearing from workplaces around the country. Despite the fact that the number of women entering the workforce is equal to the number of men – only 29% of senior roles in South Africa are held by women.

Statistics show that there are equal numbers of professional women at entry level and junior and middle management level in South African organisations and, in some cases, more women than men are working at lower levels – and yet something is happening to prevent these women from getting to the top.

With just one woman in the ANC top six, President Cyril Ramaphosa has come under fire for not appointing more women to Cabinet positions. Meanwhile, in corporate South Africa, only 29% of senior positions in business are held by women according to the 2018 Grant Thornton Women in Business report. The good news is that 80% of organisations in South Africa now have at least one woman at the highest level, but the bad news is that it really is just one or two women taking their seat at those boardroom tables in each instance.

“Women seem to ‘disappear’ when it comes to the senior level,” says Sue von Hirschfeld, who co-convenes the developing women in leadership programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB).

“The reasons are complex and multifaceted, but there is a fair amount of research showing that a lack of support, prejudice and stereotyping, as well as personal factors such as self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence all deter women from advancing.”

A lack of diversity should be of concern to companies and organisations, says associate professor at the GSB Dr Linda Ronnie.

“Diversity is not a cosmetic, nice-to-have. In tough economic times, it could make the difference between success and failure.”

Gender diversity has been linked with creativity as well as increases in productivity and the bottom line. It also helps organisations maintain a competitive edge.

“If we want women to thrive in corporate spaces, we need to make them a lot more flexible spaces,” says Dr Makgathi Mokwena, a therapist and leadership development expert who co-convenes the developing women in leadership programme with Von Hirschfeld. “Many women climbing the corporate ladder are exhausted, since they put in 12-plus hours in the office and still have to face the second shift when they get home. It’s no wonder some women jump ship as they get closer to executive positions. They are exhausted and depleted, and often disillusioned with the whole journey.”

She believes much can be done to support women in the workplace, by introducing more flexible working conditions, for instance, providing child care or kindergarten services. Workplaces wield tremendous power when it comes to their ability to exacerbate or relieve pressure on women.

Suggestions from a study by the Global Network for Advanced Management, a network of 29 business schools around the world, include finding ways to reward productivity, rather than hours worked in the office and enabling more flexible working practices that allow women to work remotely without stigma being attached to that. Leadership needs to model these shifts in organisational culture to help them stick. And there is also evidence that closing the pay gap is important.

Von Hirschfeld adds that there is work to be done on the personal level too. By helping women to explore and understand, for example, the impact of a lack of confidence and limiting self-beliefs on career success and by developing critical skills, women can be better equipped to develop and maintain useful networks, identify and work with a mentor and generally develop social capital – all vital for success on the world of work.

“Many women lack the confidence and/or skill to negotiate with employers and life-partners for support to assist with balancing home and family life with professional responsibilities, for example,” she says. As Sheryl Sandberg puts it in her seminal book Lean In: “We need more men at the table … the kitchen table!”

This is where practical programmes like the GSB’s developing women in leadership programme are effective, believes von Hirschfeld, giving professional women the tools they need to successfully progress at work while better managing their various roles and responsibilities.

“If corporations and organisations are serious about creating an inclusive culture that makes women feel valued then they need to send a signal and invest in such initiatives,” she says.

Dr Mokwena agrees, but adds that women don’t need to wait until the system changes before they can advance.

“We don’t need to settle for being on the receiving end of a system that doesn’t serve us well. We need to advocate for change, develop our skills and support each other. We need to be the change we want to see in the workplace and work together to prevent women from ‘disappearing’. Not to do so is a loss for everyone.”

Kumeshnee West is director of executive education at the UCT Graduate School of Business. For more information on the developing women in leadership programme which runs this August at the UCT GSB go to

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