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Women and the organisation 

Many conversations about women in business ask what can be done to improve the agency of women in organisations. The underlying logic is that women need something ‘extra’ to be able to perform in the workplace. Less often is the conversation about the agency of the organisation in welcoming and empowering women.

Merely increasing the number of women in organisations is insufficient. While this will undoubtedly contribute to greater diversity, it is unlikely to resolve the organisational issues. Women’s lived experiences differ markedly from men’s; childcare, multiple roles, sexism, and microaggressions all take their toll. 

It is this lived experience, in the workplace, in the home and in society that needs to be integrated into the worldview and mainstream operational style of organisations.

Organisations must have the political commitment as well as the ability to challenge certain norms, engage in self-reflection, enforce policies and promote their value within the organisation and in its interaction with society. This is different from and separate from the organisational political strength of any particular female individual. 

Put another way,  ‘women’s issues and women’s organisational leadership require scrutiny of the institutions of leadership –– on the reforms they must undergo –– and not just on the leaders themselves.

The role of women in business

To understand the role of women in business, we need to understand how leadership plays out in a business. We begin with the leader of the organisation. This is where most of the attention is focused.  

Many conversations about women in leadership focus on the attributes and behaviours of the leader. But this is not sufficient, as we have noted in the earlier sections of this article to overcome the structural prejudices inherent in organisations.

Secondly, we have the people whom the leader leads, the people in the organisation. These are the people who carry out the instructions and directives of leaders, and without whom the leader has no hope of success. 

These ‘followers’ are critical for the success of the leader. It is their enthusiasm, sacrifices and attention to detail that makes the intentions of the leader come alive. Each of these ‘followers’ can, in turn, be leaders to their teams and so on through the organisation. 

The followers, however, submit to the prevailing norms and behaviours in the organisation, because compliance assists them with their career success. 

Finally, we have the work environment in which this plays out. The work environment refers to the physical, social and psychological space in which the work of the organisation is carried out. 

Organisations pay a great deal of attention to leadership, less attention to ‘followership’, and considerably less to the physical, social and psychological environment within which this work plays out.

Women and men

The inherent flaw is the reasoning that there are traditionally female and traditionally male styles of work and leadership and they are set in stone and are exclusive of one another. 

No gender can be viewed as a closed universe in terms of business or management styles. Women can be just as competitive, ruthless and assertive, which are typically viewed as masculine traits. We need to consider that patience, empathy and communality are equally important leadership traits.

Many organisations have an outdated mental model of leadership that values competitiveness, ruthlessness and assertiveness, and that scorns patience, empathy and commonality. Our modern 5IR world has presented us with a whole new set of organisational challenges, which requires much more of the latter skillsets for success.

There may have been a time when traditional masculine management skills kept us, our families and our homes safe from danger, theft and intrusion. But the world has moved on. We are in a different place and we require new solutions. We have to learn what it practically means to embrace diversity in leadership.

We need an environment where a much wider continuum of leadership skills is welcomed and deployed to confront the different challenges and opportunities we now face. Having women leaders in organisations is not about nice-to-have quotas – it is a business imperative.

By keeping women out of the top positions in business, we miss out on the brainpower and the potential for new ideas that always come along with increasing the diversity of a group. Different backgrounds, lived experiences and perspectives foster more creativity and innovation. 

Why women in business are important

 In an era of skill shortages, women represent a formidable talent pool that companies aren’t making enough of. Smart companies who want to be successful in the global economy should make genuine gender diversity a key ingredient of their business strategy. Representative business organisations and employer and business membership organisations must take a lead, promoting both effective policies and genuine implementation.

Deborah France-Massin, Director of the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities

The quotation above comes from a report of the ILO: Women in Business and Management: The business case for change.  It found that businesses with genuine gender diversity, particularly at the senior level, perform better, including seeing significant profit increases.

The ILO report surveyed almost 13,000 enterprises in 70 countries. More than 57 per cent of respondents agreed that gender diversity initiatives improved business outcomes. Almost three-quarters of those companies that tracked gender diversity in their management reported profit increases of between 5 and 20 per cent, with the majority seeing increases of between 10 and 15 per cent. 

Almost 57 per cent said it was easier to attract and retain talent. More than 54 per cent said they saw improvements in creativity, innovation and openness and a similar proportion said effective gender inclusivity enhanced their company’s reputation, while almost 37 per cent felt it enabled them to more effectively gauge customer sentiment. 

Companies should look at gender balance as a bottom line issue, not just a human resource issue.

Deborah France-Massin, Director of the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre lists several areas where women are stronger in key areas of both politics and business. Survey respondents noted that women are:

  • 34% better at working out compromises
  • 34% more likely to be honest and ethical
  • 25% more likely to stand up for their beliefs
  • 30% more likely to provide fair pay and benefits
  • 25% better at mentoring

Forward-thinking companies should be looking for ways to employ and empower more women at work – not just as a moral obligation, but also as a sound business strategy. McKinsey’s most recent Delivering Through Diversity report found corporations that embrace gender diversity on their executive teams were more competitive and 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability.

They also had a 27% likelihood of outperforming their peers on longer-term value creation. Different perspectives on customer needs, product improvements and company well-being fuel a better business.

Historically women have been excluded from top leadership roles, either by law or by culture. And this has been devastating. Anybody with the skill, determination and desire to undertake a leadership role should have the opportunity to do so. Our world is desperately short of good leaders, and we cannot afford artificial, unnecessary barriers that prevent the best people from getting the best jobs.

Right around the world women have become important for economic growth. Achieving gender diversity in enterprises is of critical importance to improving business outcomes. However, women remain underrepresented in business, particularly at senior management levels.

Women rarely attain executive management positions or serve as members of company boards. Yet, women have increasingly overtaken men in terms of tertiary education qualifications. While much progress has been made, women remain underutilised despite representing a dynamic and capable pool of talent.

A recent study by Catalyst reported that in 2020,  the proportion of women in senior management roles globally was 29%. Put another way, 70% of all senior management positions worldwide are filled by men.

The same study found that women are over-represented in support functions like administration, while men tend to be concentrated in operations, profit and loss, and research and development. These latter roles provide critical experience for executives aspiring to CEO and board-level positions. 

To attain these positions of power— in a male-dominated world, women often report feeling that they have to “act like men” or otherwise subsume their instincts and management styles to be accepted into the Boy’s Club of C-level executives. This plays to the agency of women’s narrative. Having more women in the workplace makes an organisation a better place to work, for people of all genders.

A recent study asked hundreds of respondents to estimate what percentage of individuals in their workplace were women, followed by questions about their workplace environments. Organisations with a higher percentage of women in an organisation reported more job satisfaction, more organisational dedication, more meaningful work; and less burnout.

The same study reported that organisations with a larger proportion of women reported a positive organisational culture, including enjoyable work, a job that fits well with other areas of their life, and opportunities to make a difference. These new findings were valid, regardless of participants’ age, industry, organisation size, leadership level, ethnicity, and gender.

The inescapable conclusion is that a workplace well-represented with empowered women leaders is going to be more effective than one without.

Challenges faced by women

There are several challenges that women leaders face in the workplace. 

Many times women are not treated equally. They face gender stereotypes and have to deliver work to a higher standard than their male colleagues to gain acceptance.

Ambition in men is considered a virtue, but ambitious women are often stereotyped as bossy or aggressive. 

Many women have childcare and homemaker responsibilities, which are not shared in the household. This puts additional stress on women executives. For a sick child, buying groceries or undertaking household chores can be demanding.

Men learn to play the corporate game through long standing business conventions that help them build alliances and influence others. Often male relationships are fostered, and decisions arrived at over drinks after work, or a conversation over the urinal – would replace this with another example These places are not accessible to women. Women need to find alternate routes to building mutually beneficial alliances and strategic relationships.

Organisational cultures that require “anytime, anywhere” availability for work delivery negatively affect women, because of their household and family responsibilities. Women, especially those with small children find themselves excluded.

The “leaky pipeline” describes the situation where the proportion of women in management decreases at higher levels. The “glass wall” describes the situation where competent women managers end up in roles such as HR and administration that are considered less strategic and are less likely to lead to chief executive and boardroom positions. 

Whilst society has made progress with gender equality, there are still some challenges that women face in the workplace that hold themselves and their careers back. Some of the challenges include the following:

The gender pay gap

Men still earn significantly more than women – for performing the same job. Some studies say that it will take almost two centuries to close the worldwide pay gap.

Giraffe, the South African recruitment business, undertook a study of pay disparity in South Africa. Some of the major findings in their report reveal that:

  • On average South African men earn 25% more than women
  • South Africa ranks as one of the most equal-paying countries in the world- 19th out of 149
  • The gender pay gap starts to widen from the age of 26 years old with the largest difference at age 36 to 44 (33%)
  • Education decreases the gap but does not eliminate it- women with degrees will start off earning 5% less than their male colleagues
  • Women without matric are most vulnerable to pay discrimination with an average pay gap of 33%
  • Men with limited education have better opportunities (construction, security, warehousing and transport) than women with limited education (hotels, supermarkets and restaurants).
  • The older women get, the larger the pay gap gets- likely due to childcare and exit from the workforce for a period where male peers can overtake them
  • The most unequal-paying occupations for women are: Nurse, Salesperson, Welder, Supervisor, Machine Operator and Waiter
  • The most equal paying occupations for women are Receptionist/ PA, Admin, Shop assistant, Data capturer
  • Male managers earn 21% more than female managers

The Giraffe survey does not explicitly report on women in leadership positions, but it does highlight the challenges that women have in the workplace, and that is before they even get a chance to get into the C-suite.

A remuneration survey by PwC in 2018 indicates that 61% of the females surveyed were remunerated below the median of the sample in comparison to 39% of males.  In contrast, 63% of males were remunerated above the median in comparison to 37% of females in the sample.  From this data, it is clear that corporate South Africa still needs to focus on ensuring that female numbers are increased at these levels in addition to addressing gender pay inequalities.

The PwC’s recent ‘Executive Directors’ Remuneration and Practices’ report found that women executives in the financial services sector earn 7% less than their male counterparts. While executive women in the industrial and basic resources sectors, earn 9% and 7% less respectively, than their male co-workers. 

Getting a seat at the table

Women in the workplace find it challenging to get the same opportunities as men.  In many cases, men are appointed and then develop into a role whereas women have to have demonstrated achievement before being considered. Women’s ability to lead is often undermined by gender stereotypes.

The PwC’s recent ‘Executive Directors’ Remuneration and Practices’ report found that only 6% of JSE CEOs are women. There is a long way to go.

Workplace policies that hold women back

Many workplace maternity and paternity policies do not adequately support women in their careers.  Under current arrangements, for most women, having a child will negatively affect their career. When women return to work after pregnancy, they miss out on opportunities and promotions.

Childcare is difficult, where some women cannot afford to return to work, or they struggle to juggle work and childcare.  Companies are still hesitant to offer genuine flexible hours for parents. We will see if the Covid pandemic will shift companies’ work performance focus from hours sitting at a desk, to productivity and results. 


In our opening paragraphs, we mentioned how the prevailing culture and ways of doing things in an organisation can impede women’s progress. One of these ‘cultural’ barriers is microaggression.

Microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. Rather than an overt declaration of sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhand comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult.

For example, a male manager might comment about a female colleague’s dress. The male may not have intended to offend the female, but the comment still reminds the woman that she is not fully accepted.

Experiencing daily microaggressions can be deeply stressful. The marginalised woman may struggle to understand if the comment was intentional and how to respond. Surveys indicate that women who experience microaggressions are three times more likely to think about resigning.

Making a woman-friendly environment

The more aware we are of other people’s experiences in the workplace, the more we can work together to create a genuinely inclusive and supportive environment for everyone. When women (or any employee) feel like outsiders in the workplace because of their unique qualities or differences (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, sexual orientation), they feel excluded. An inclusive workplace means creating a culture that fully engages and supports all employees.

How do organisations go about removing the barriers to the success of women? 

The Giraffe report referred to earlier has several recommendations. We take these and expand on them further:

Enforce a zero-tolerance policy

An organisation’s reputation improves dramatically when it implements and enforces strict policies for its employees. A well-defined policy that mentions strong disciplinary action for anyone found guilty of gender-related offences should be circulated and enforced organisation-wide.

Create inclusive and safe spaces

We live in a society of many intersecting inequalities: age, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation and gender identity are at the heart of change. leadership and transformation must include women in all their diversity, and different ways of thinking and organising — beginning by recognising where existing power and privilege lie and creating safe spaces for dialogue.

Young women in particular face unique challenges as a result of the intersection of their age and gender. As a result, in the international development and social justice sector, promoting young women’s leadership is particularly crucial to reshaping our organisations. Young women regularly cite inter-generational gatekeeping, tokenism, a combination of ageism-sexism, and other prejudices that prevent them from realising their potential as leaders.  

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment remains a widespread problem, and at least one-quarter of women have reported some sort of harassment on the job. This inappropriate behaviour costs employers in many ways: increased absenteeism, persistent job turnover, and low productivity and engagement. Individually, women become depressed, experience anxiety, or quit together in the hope of avoiding continued harassment. The very opposite of effective agency.

Organisations should develop and implement prevention strategies such as a highly visible community education campaign, train managers to report any complaints or observations of harassment and thoroughly investigate all complaints of harassment and take corrective action.

Create a work-from-home policy

A compelling work-from-home policy can help engage and retain working mothers, especially given increasing levels of internet connectivity and collaboration tools. The policy should take account of women’s career stages. The challenge for organisations is to convince (male) managers that you don’t have to physically see someone at a desk to know that they are working.

Offer childcare facilities at the workplace

Mothers with small children will be more likely to return to work and be more productive, thereby naturally decreasing the pay gap. Accessible, safe child care close by allows female employees to focus fully on the job.

Redesign jobs roles to cater for part-time and flexible roles

The prevailing mental model is that a job is full-day, every day. But this is an outdated industrial approach which applied when an employee had to operate a machine at a specific time. Digital technology has left this far behind. Doing so will help retain women employees with children and enable more flexibility in their career paths. 

Find the pay gaps and fix them

Transparency is a key pillar in addressing pay discrimination. Forward-thinking organisations should transparently identify the pay gaps and resolutely set about addressing them.

South Africa’s Employment Equity Act enforces the principle of equal pay for work of equal value and requires employers of more than 50 people to report on income differentials between men and women.

Workplace safety and security

Basic workplace e-safety and security are usually non-issues for male employees. But they can be a cause of anxiety for female employees.  The location of the office or the official work hours lighting in the parking area, being asked to stay late for a meeting, can be very stressful for women. Women employees have to continually assess risks in their work environment and be on guard and this impacts their performance and productivity.

Organisations should ensure that male managers are aware of these issues and that they are taken into account when allocating work. Providing infrastructural amenities like a late-night shuttle service, female taxi drivers and enhanced surveillance for security, are a few improvements coming up in the corporate work culture.


The necessity for competent women leaders to be fairly represented at all levels of the organisation is indisputable.

This is a matter of business survival in a world inside the threshold of the 5th Industrial Revolution. And the Covid-19 epidemic has sharpened its urgency.

Organisations wishing to be effective in the area should concentrate on getting their organisations to be women-friendly. They should train and reinforce their staff in appropriate workplace practices and social behaviours. And they should recruit and give confident free-reign to the women managers and executives they employ.


Awakening the Potential in Women.

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