Towards gender parity in the workplace

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It has been more than 100 years since the International Labour Organization first established standards on women in the workplace. Yet, at the current rate of progress, it would take Africa more than 140 years to reach gender parity and about 257 years to close the global economic gender gap…and that’s only if we don’t slip back. This means none of us will see gender equality in our lifetime. It also means we are failing to tap one half of the world‘s talent and potential.

Working towards equality in the workplace was the theme of the Women in Leadership RoundTable in March – an enduring topic and one that we all strive to achieve on this continent, hopefully, in our lifetime. The roundtable was co-hosted by the SVAI and the #ITSNOTOK movement.

Facilitated by Tabby Tsengiwe, GM: Public Affairs & Communications at Old Mutual, panelists engaged in a discussion on fundamental barriers to equality in the workplace, the importance of women in leadership to help close the gender gap and building blocks needed to fast-track transformation. 

Africa’s targets are commendable. The African Union’s Agenda 2063 sets a goal of 50% women’s representation, significantly higher than the 30% laid out in the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Yet at the end of 2020 there were only three African countries with sitting women prime ministers and one with a woman president.

This also begs the question why have we not seen enough acceleration in terms of gender parity in the workplace. We need more women leaders, across Africa and around the world. We have a common responsibility to uphold the promise made more than 25 years ago, noted Mpho Lethoko, GM of Communications at Sappi Southern Africa, in reference to the blueprint for women’s rights produced in Beijing.

For companies the bottom-line comes first. Until we are able to demonstrate how women in leadership positions make business sense, women will continue to struggle and it could very well take hundred and twenty four years to change the status quo, maintained Santina Benson, CEO, CEO Roundtable Tanzania.

“I also believe companies have an unconscious bias, for example, when it comes to performance metrics that are historically partial towards men – this needs to be addressed,” added Khanyisile Chaba, Head: Responsible Business at Old Mutual. “It is up to the organisation to create a space and environment for women to thrive, to feel safe and lift the barriers to success.”

Denial and support structures were seen as major stumbling blocks. “It is hard to talk about a problem when so many people have vested interests in denying its existence,” said Sibongile Ndashe, Executive Director at the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA). ”We need to understand the extent of this denial and understand how over the years, it continues to be an obstacle. How do you solve a problem that, seemingly, does not exist?”

According to the panel, women-for-women support structures within business could be instrumental in breaking down those invisible barriers. While this should not be the exclusive responsibility of women in leadership, all women in influential positions must lead by example – as a mentor or coach, and publicly address some of the challenges that women face. Women leaders also have the power to make changes that will increase equality both in the workplace and in wider society.

The fact that men and women do not start their careers from a level playing field was identified as an important obstacle on the road towards gender parity. Women have to wear many different hats as business professional, company leader, mother, wife, daughter, and more. These different roles and responsibility have a direct bearing on their work performance.

The breakdown in the criminal justice delivery system, in fact, is a very serious challenge. When the justice system fails, people often feel they have no recourse and nowhere else to go.

Sibongile Ndashe (ISLA) elaborated: “We need to make the experience of engaging the criminal justice system better for women, but even more important is the issue of accountability. In other words, when someone has a duty to do something and the person fails to do that, then that person has to be held accountable. We need to advance general awareness and understanding of accountability and, above all, drive legal empowerment – only then will people be able to seek help.”

She added that, over the past decade, there has been a systemic, dismantling of organisations that are supposed to provide support services to survivors of violence and help victims navigate the criminal justice system. “We know what works, but the failure to invest in the services that makes the criminal justice system respond has been a monumental failing.”

Despite these often-insurmountable obstacles, panelists were optimistic that there has been change in the right direction, albeit excruciating slow. “In Tanzania, for example, only 9% of women hold CEO positions and I represent an organisation that has 150 CEOs of which only 19 are female,” said Santina Benson. ”Yes, we need to celebrate that but, at the same time, we focus our efforts on building the pipeline of future women leaders,”

Irene Charnley (IWFSA) concurred: “We have to lay the right foundations for future generations to come. We have to develop the next layer of female leadership and through mentorship programs. We need to support and guide the younger generation of women.”

The panel unanimously agreed that, in order to advance gender equality, men have to become an integral part of the conversation and, ultimately, the solution. “What is lacking is the voice and platforms given to this 9% of women CEOs in Tanzania to engage, openly talk and educate their male counterparts,” said Santina Benson.

According to Mpho Lethoko (Sappi), companies should create spaces where discussions about gender parity will not make anyone feel threatened. “It must focus on how do we, as human beings, interact and ensure that in this diverse world we are also able to bring diversity – different voices and different perspectives – into the room and the decision-making process.”

“Men are undeniably part of the solution, but first we, as women, must come together and stand united. We must be vigilant in the workplace and create opportunities for other women,” countered Irene Charnley (IWFSA). “We need to stand up and ensure the issues are raised at board level, in the subcommittees and in the shareholder meetings.”

She added that structured support of women entrepreneurs and small women-owned companies will also have a positive impact on society in general and, potentially, even help reduce gender based violence and femicide in Africa.

“There is enough research showing the financial benefits to having women in equal positions in the workplace. It is time for shareholders to start holding companies accountable. Gender equality is not an option. It is a human right and we have to hold companies accountable,” concluded Mpho Lethoko (Sappi).

Tiekie Barnard, CEO, SVAI & Shift Impact Africa wrapped up the discussion succinctly: “There is so much more we can do together. We need to start by empowering each other. If we stand up for one woman, we stand up for all women. After all, there is no vaccine for gender-based violence.”