Gender Equality: The Economic Game Changer Africa Can’t Ignore

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By examining the collective responsibility, the shift from policy to action, the tangible benefits, and the necessity for a holistic approach, the CEO Connect Forum in South Africa not only provided a platform for engagement and discussion but also a roadmap for actionable change. If companies heed these calls to action, gender equality will transcend its status as a social issue to become a pillar of sustainable economic development.

In an era dominated by discussions on climate change and sustainability, the CEO Connect Forum held at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on August 18th cast a well-deserved spotlight on another urgent mandate: gender equality. It’s not merely an issue of social justice; it’s an economic game changer that directly influences a company’s bottom line.

Vuyo Lee, the Director of Marketing & Corporate Affairs at the JSE, set the tone for the proceedings with a sobering statistic: despite women constituting approximately 51% of South Africa’s population, a mere 2% of CEOs in the country’s top 100 listed companies are women. As she urged, gender equality is not just a by-product of other initiatives but a “clear management action” that necessitates deliberate multi-stakeholder involvement. Lee’s remarks echoed the collective message — there is no excuse for inaction, and gender equality is no longer optional; it is an essential business strategy.

The Time for Collective Responsibility is Now

“Gender equality should be elevated to the same level as climate change in terms of urgency and impact,” asserted Tiekie Barnard, CEO of Shared Value Africa Initiative. This collective responsibility isn’t confined to the purview of governments or civil societies but penetrates deep into the corporate world.

The same sentiment was reiterated by Ignatius Sehoole, CEO of KPMG SA, who emphasised that the proactive role of the private sector is indispensable. “When businesses commit to a cause with determination, significant positive change ensues,” he noted.

Shifting from Policy to Execution

The shift from policy to action was explicitly championed by the Honourable Harriette Chiggai, Kenya’s Presidential Advisor on Women’s Rights. “The road to gender parity mandates robust internal policies, rigorous monitoring and evaluation frameworks, and genuine cross-sectoral collaboration,” she stressed. Her remarks dovetailed with other speakers who advocated for moving beyond awareness to action. This transition isn’t just rhetorical; it calls for actionable changes in the areas of leadership accountability, capacity building, and shifting mindsets.

Ms Chiggai also reminded us, “Transparency is not just a virtue but an operational necessity,” pressing the urgency for immediate action in eradicating inequalities for collective benefit.

Measurable Benefits Demand Measurable Actions

However, these aren’t just lofty ideals; they require concrete metrics for evaluation. Both Ignatius Sehoole and Steve Kiptinness, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer at Safaricom, highlighted the tangible benefits of gender diversity, including enhanced problem-solving capabilities and resilience.

Richard Rivett-Carnac, CEO of SAB, further supported this argument by sharing the company’s success in achieving higher efficiencies in production lines often managed exclusively by women. “Driving the gender equality agenda is within corporate control and must be undertaken with serious commitment and measurable metrics,” Rivett-Carnac stated decisively.

Companies like SAB and Safaricom have adopted an integrated approach that stretches beyond in-house operations to include value chains and societal impact. Through diversifying brands, offering financial products specifically tailored for women, and fostering community impacts, these companies embody the multi-faceted strategies required to advance gender equality.

Mindset: The Invisible Barrier

Richard Firth, CEO of MIP Holdings, and Sylvester Chauke, Founder of DNA Brand Architects, focused on the imperative of shifting mindsets and creating an empathetic corporate culture. Firth even disclosed his own company’s challenges with gender-based violence affecting productivity, highlighting that the issue permeates all sectors and sizes of businesses. “Without personal consequences for perpetrators, the cycle of violence will not stop,” he cautioned.

This perspective was also shared by Pieter Scholtz, Partner and Africa ESG Lead at KPMG SA when he noted: “To neglect the fight against gender-based violence and by extension, gender equality, would be nothing short of a ‘crime against humanity’.” His comments served as a stark reminder of the collective responsibility that rests on the shoulders of employers.

The Economic Toll of Gender Inequality

While the social dimensions of gender inequality are well-documented, Prof. Corne Davis, GBV Activist and Associate Professor at the University of Johannesburg, took the conversation a step further. “The impact of gender-based violence is costing the South African economy an estimated R36 billion annually, based on just 7% of reported cases,” Davis noted, stressing that the economic ramifications are far-reaching and debilitating for the nation.

Time for a Paradigm Shift

The days of viewing gender equality as a checkbox or a CSR initiative are over. “Tackling gender inequality is not just an organisational priority but a personal one,” said Ignatius Sehoole, echoing a broader call for male leadership to engage directly in this issue.

It’s time to shift from dialogue to measurable outcomes, from awareness to action, and from policy to implementation. This means embracing accountability at the leadership level, building capacity through actionable plans like the SVAI’s Gender Equality Implementation Guide presented by Advocacy and Communications Specialist, Joy Ruwodo, and catalysing change in corporate culture. “Commitment from the top is non-negotiable,” she emphasised. The Gender Equality Assessment Tool and the Gender Equality Implementation Guide – a unique, easy to use resource that was developed from an African perspective, for use by African organisations.

An Economic Revolution, Not Just a Social Revolution

As Lettie-Basani Phume, Group Human Capital Executive at Momentum Metropolitan Group, summarised, “We have a fiduciary and moral obligation to move from dialogue to measurable outcomes.”

For corporate South Africa, the opportunity is not just to transform workplaces but to fundamentally alter the social fabric of the nation. As Phume said, future generations will judge us by the change we instigate now.

Gender equality is not an optional sideline discussion; it’s the game-changer that corporates in Africa must engage with—both for ethical imperatives as well as for their own economic survival.

The CEO Connect South Africa Forum saw nearly 200 executives in attendance, with the organisers aspiring for Gender Equality to be integrated into organisational strategies.