by Christelle Fourie

Equality in the boardroom

SA women must take the bull by the horns

Christelle Fourie, managing director of MUA Insurance Acceptances
Christelle.jpg

The percentage of women operating in executive roles for listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) nearly doubled last year, to 8% in 2012 from 4.2% a year earlier, according to a recent report released by PricewaterhouseCoopers.  

While the trend is positive, overall representation is still alarmingly low, highlighting the urgent need for more women to pursue senior management positions in South African companies.

This sentiment is mirrored by the recent findings from the Credit Suisse Research Institute study which found that shares of companies with a market capitalisation of more than $10 billion (R82bn) and with women board members outperformed comparable businesses with all-male boards by 26% globally over a six year period. This research indicates the clear benefits of women in leadership positions yet women are still underrepresented in leadership positions, particularly in the financial services industry. 

There are a number of reasons why relatively few women occupy top level positions in South Africa’s boardrooms. While it may seem controversial to say so, many women choose not to occupy higher positions in the business world because of the difficulties involved in balancing a family and a career.

One of the most important factors in being able to strike the correct balance is not just the ability of the woman involved, but perhaps more crucially, the attitude of the employer. It is possible to successfully maintain a career and have a family, but if you choose to do this then it is vital to choose a company that supports your outlook on life.

The working environment plays a large role in determining whether a healthy work and home life can be successfully maintained. If you have an unsympathetic manager at work, then it is extremely difficult for a woman to meet business demands at the same time as raising a family, with the result that many women often choose to leave the company.

The first few years of motherhood are already extremely difficult for women, so to juggle this new role and the ordinary pressures of work is hard enough, but most women also have to simultaneously catch up on any developments in the business whilst they are on maternity leave. As a result, it is important to look for an employer who is understanding and makes compromises when possible.

For those women wanting to pursue a top level career, it is important to be highly organised in both your business and personal life, and to have a good support structure in place that can assist with taking care of family needs so you can focus 100% on your work while at the office. It is impossible to have a demanding career, especially if it involves regular travel, without a decent support structure and a very well organised schedule. When it comes to scheduling family time and work time, try not to work long hours but rather put in the extra hours early in the morning when everyone is still peacefully at sleep.

Never underestimate the impact a successful career may have on the balance of family life – know you will have to make many personal sacrifices to enjoy the thrill of a successful career. There are those occasions where, as a woman, you need to adapt your way of doing things to fit in with the rest of the industry. However, being flexible and open to change are key components for any successful business person. 

It is important, however, that businesses do begin to appreciate the value of having women in executive positions. Women bring a different dynamic to the boardroom and can offer a fresh perspective on how business is conducted. However, in order to facilitate further female representation at board level in South Africa, companies need to accommodate the differing needs of women.

Whether this involves flexi time or changes to work procedures, it is in the best interests of the company to accommodate these needs so that it can retain and motivate its top staff, regardless of their gender.

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