Cape Town - About 39% of local businesses do not have any women at all in leadership positions, according to a Grant Thornton report on women in business.
On top of that, the survey found women hold only 23% of senior positions in SA - down from 27% in 2015.
About 200 South African businesses were surveyed as part of the annual Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR). The IBR consists of surveys among 5 520 businesses in 36 economies.
In the view of Lee-Anne Bac, director: advisory services at Grant Thornton, SA businesses must be encouraged to redress the increasingly negative gender equality trend.
She is hopeful that new Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) requirements, together with the changing gender profile of global leaders, will help to bring about change in SA.
The JSE changed its listing requirements in August 2015 to prompt listed companies to disclose the female representation on their boards and drive transformation and diversity at an executive management level. From January 2017, all listed entities will need to have a policy on the promotion of gender diversity at board level, as well as disclose how they are performing against this policy.
According to Zeona Jacobs, director of marketing and corporate affairs at the JSE, this disclosure will enable companies to enter into constructive dialogue regarding the pace and nature of gender transformation and, in doing so, set up an agenda for change.
Bac pointed out that, although the JSE has given listed companies an ultimatum on gender equality at board level, it has not set any quotas. Instead it rather encourages companies to have voluntary targets.
“Imposed quotas can lead to situations in which firms address diversity because they have to, not because they genuinely believe in its value,” said Bac.
"They can also imply that women are in senior positions not on their own merit, but simply to meet quota requirements. Women’s self-esteem is not helped if they are unsure whether they are being hired for their skills and experience, or simply to fulfil a quota system," she explained.
The Grant Thornton Women in Business report suggests firms need to resist group-think and welcome a range of perspectives in order to grow. The report shows that the commercial benefits of women in leadership are well-established.
"This is particularly relevant in a rapidly changing global business environment when a wide range of perspectives is critical to navigating new landscapes. Diversity is good for businesses, encouraging different ways of thinking and opening new growth opportunities," according to the report.
While some research has shown that gender diversity makes no difference to the bottom line, other studies show that companies with diverse boards outperform their male-only peers.
“As South Africa’s challenges grow on several fronts, there is a dire need for the kind of true, innovative leadership that comes from diverse boards. More than ever, we need different ways of addressing challenges and stimulating economic growth,” said Bac.
According to divorce attorney Simon Dippenaar, the fact remains that women are still excluded from many opportunities available to their male counterparts.
"Poor education, lack of confidence and structural barriers keep them out of the workplace or in low-paid jobs. About 84% of female employment is in the services sector and women dominate lower earnings categories. Given that many women are sole breadwinners for their families, this is a serious situation," said Dippenaar.
"The legislation is in place to protect all workers and it’s being extended and modified all the time. But a sincere intent on the part of employers is now required to bring women more actively into the economy."
A recent report by McKinsey & Company shows in the past 10 years only 5% of CEOs in the private sector in Africa are women.