We need gender quotas on boards

The Businesswomen’s Association of SA has for the past decade sought to measure and track the upward mobility of women in the South African economy through an annual census report.

Premised on the maxim that “what gets measured gets done”, Bwasa’s South African Women in Leadership Census provides an ongoing, comprehensive analysis of women in leadership and allows one to measure South Africa’s performance towards gender equality and equity in the economy.

JSE-listed companies and their subsidiaries, together with state-owned enterprises, control at least 90% of the South African economy. Last year’s census study researched 277 JSE-listed companies and once again found a near absence of gender diversity, with only 4.7% having female chief executives, 6.9% having women chairpersons, 19.1% having female directors and 29.5% having female executive managers.

Bwasa notes that the premise may be overzealous, as tracking and measuring has culminated in no action and no measurable improvement. In turn, this has prompted Bwasa, under its new president Happy Ralinala, to re-evaluate the impact of measuring women’s progression and include advocacy, lobbying and possible strategic litigation to demand significant change.

Bwasa’s theme for this year is “The economy is a woman”, which aims to practically display the real importance of women in society, and a call to action on the impact women make on the economy and what the world would look like without women in it.

Similarly, the City Press wealth index reiterates the dreary status quo. Despite nearly 25 years of democracy, women still languish in the shadows, taking up most of the domestic and child-caring responsibilities while still having to slog it out in the corporate space. A woman’s work day is certainly not an eight-hour stint in the office. This is quite ironic because as per the 2011 census women outnumber men and are more likely to graduate from university, yet still are not the owners of wealth, the economy or land.

The root causes for the disproportionate levels of income are interrelated and heavily intertwined within the societal and cultural underpinnings of how women are groomed for their role in the world. From the onset, women are less likely to pursue “male occupations” such as engineering, mining, aviation and manufacturing. Access to internships is often met with expectations of sexual trade-offs. Once the purse strings are open and women have entered the corporate space, they are excluded from the “boys’ club” after-hours bonding jilts and golf weekends. Women are socially moulded not to be assertive and commanding, thus less likely to hold their employers to task over why they are being paid less than their male counterparts, or to negotiate a better salary.

The gender wage gap is far more pronounced in the private sector, as job grading, performance bonuses and salary notches aren’t publicly disclosed. This secrecy is amplified by the taboo that it is socially unacceptable to ask a person how much they earn.

Given that 90% of the economy is held in the clutches of the male hand, it is not plausible to hold true the assertion that employers still hold on to the discriminatory belief that women don’t add comparable value, contribution and skills as their male counterparts. This is further aggravated by the misbelief that women are less likely to stay long term and will cause expense during maternity leave or child-caring responsibilities.

The Employment Equity Act, as complemented by its the Code of Good Practice on Equal Pay/Remuneration for Work of Equal Value, obliges employers to guard against unequal pay for equal work. But without strict auditing of compliance and adequate sanction, the constitutional imperative of gender equality will never be realised.

Perhaps South Africa should follow Iceland, which promulgated a law making it illegal to pay women less than men, with the onus on the business to demonstrate its compliance. For nearly a decade, the World Economic Forum has ranked Iceland as number one in gender equality. But more is needed in the arsenal in the war on misogyny, and the answer may lie in affirmative action at the higher rungs of the corporate ladder.

In 2015, the JSE in support of gender transformation introduced listing requirements effective from January last year, which requires listed companies to have a policy for the promotion of gender diversity at board level and report on their performance. This extremely soft-soaped approach to the glaring inequality crisis will have little to no impact. Many will argue that legislative quotas on board diversity will quell investor confidence, while others would say that without sanction or legislative will, South Africa would remain a boys club.

Professor Suzette Viviers of Stellenbosch University and others have written extensively on options available for South Africa to fast-forward to a progressive public corporate structure. Yet there is no action.

Cognisance must be taken of the global trendsetters like Norway, which in 2013 had 10% women representation on boards of listed companies and imposed mandatory gender quotas of 40%. Today it leads the world in board diversity, with 42% female representation.

A lack of enforcement and cringeworthy penalties belie a situation that will never change. Women need to be unapologetic and demand significant change in the corporate space.


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President Cyril Ramaphosa says government has set the target of ensuring that at least 40% of goods and services procured by public entities are sourced from women-owned businesses.
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