South African corporations can do much better on the women empowerment front even though the country is ahead of many of its peers, said Sandra Burmeister, CEO of human capital firm Landelahni.
This after need for South Africa to speed up gender equity in the running of the economy featured prominently in President Jacob Zuma’s closing remarks at the ANC policy conference held about two weeks ago.
Citing slow pace of women empowerment, Zuma said the ANC was considering to review all the business codes to speed up transformation of the economy.
Burmeister said “South Africa, as an industrialised economy within an emerging market, has done remarkably well, surpassing many industrialised countries as well as developing economies, including its BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China) counterparts,” says Sandra Burmeister, CEO of Landelahni, Africa partner of the global Amrop executive search group.
However she believes there is still considerable room for improvement. “There is irrefutable evidence that diverse boards produce better operational and financial performance, and that executive search consultants have an important role to play in extending sources of talent to develop a pipeline of top quality individuals that reflect gender equity.”
According to the Business Women’s Association (BWA) 2012 Women in Leadership Census, women make up 43.9% of the workforce, but constitute only 17.1% of all directors. While this is an increase from 14.6% in 2009, only 3.6% are CEOs and 5.5% are chairpersons, with these figures remaining more or less static over the past four years.
The census shows that, at the current rate, gender parity in South Africa is unlikely to be reached until 2039. “In terms of absolute numbers, the picture looks brighter,” says Burmeister. “The number of women directors has gone up from 425 in 2009 to 669 in 2012. Women directors hold a total of 1 224 directorships, an increase of 650 board seats since 2009.
“Most encouraging is the number of women with one directorship – up from 336 in 2009 to 447 in 2012, showing a positive trend to widen the pool of women as directors.”
Norway (40.1%), Sweden (27.3%) and Finland (24.5%), have introduced some form of quota system over the past few years and are considerably ahead in board seats held by women. However, South Africa at 17.1% leads the United States (16.1%) and the United Kingdom (15.0%). The country is ahead of its BRICS colleagues: China (8.5%), Russia (5.9%), India (5.3%) and Brazil (5.1%) – despite being led by its first female president.
With regard to female board chairpersons, notwithstanding regulatory measures, Sweden can boast only 2.5%, with Norway and Finland at zero. South Africa does better at 5.5%, with Brazil following closely (5.4%), Russia (3.8%), China (3.1%), India (zero) and the US lagging (2.6%) along with the UK (1.0%).
“Internationally, pressure for regulation is growing,” says Burmeister. “In March 2012, the European Commission initiated discussion on legislation to compel companies to increase the number of women on boards to 30% in 2015 and 40% by 2020. At present only 13.7% of board members of Europe’s largest firms are women.
“Implementing legislation to enforce board quotas may not be appropriate in South Africa where we already have several legislative instruments, such as black economic empowerment regulations, industry charters and the Employment Equity Act, which have similar aims.”
However she argues that this country must develop new talent faster to ensure a pool of skilled directors for the future, and “that means we cannot continue to ignore one-half of the labour force”.
“In the UK, in particular, developments over the past year have underscored the vital role that executive search consultants can play in casting the recruitment net for board members more broadly so as to attract a wider range of women candidates.
“The Davies Review of Women on Boards released by the UK government in February 2011 recommended that women should constitute at least 25% of boards of the top 100 FTSE-listed companies by 2015. In response, leading executive search firms in the UK joined forces to develop a voluntary code of conduct for addressing gender diversity and best practice relating to FTSE 350 board level appointments. These include subscribing to diversity goals and medium-term succession planning.
“One year later, the March 2012 Davies Progress Report states that the past year had shown the largest ever increase in the percentage of women on FTSE 100 boards. Some 47 female appointments were made, and over half had never sat on a board before. This would see 26.7% female board representation by 2015, demonstrating how a voluntary business-led approach can work.”
The role of executive search firms is underscored by the UK Equality and Human Rights report on board appointments published in May this year. According to Burmeister, the report found that while executive search firms are making positive steps to get more women into top jobs, there are still barriers in the final stages of the recruitment process. “Too much emphasis continues to be placed on subjective ways of making appointments that rely on women’s ability to fit in with the values, norms and behaviours of existing board members,” she says.
“These recommendations are just as valid in South Africa. It’s important for executive search consultants to focus on competencies rather than prior experience and the notion of ‘fit’, so as to bring in talented women who can enhance company performance. Executive search firms and chairmen need to take on a developmental role and provide guidance and mentoring to female candidates and pay more attention to gender-inclusive ‘on-boarding’ processes.”