The recent news of Maria Ramos’ pending retirement highlighted a gaping hole in the gender diversity plans of the country’s 40 largest JSE listed companies. Under Ramos’ guidance, employment equity across all categories increased and she used her position as a force for change. While the board’s still mum on who will replace this formidable business leader, we explore how diversity drives better business outcomes.

We have a long way to go. In November 2018, the 30% Club Southern Africa chapter, together with industry partners published a report  on the state of gender in companies listed on the JSE. Report findings found that of the 267 companies considered, only 10% had gender parity (50% female board representation). It also found that despite the amended JSE listing requirements, 50 companies did not specifically report on board gender diversity in their integrated reports.

The call for gender diversity however, does not only apply to JSE-listed companies. Every business should be thinking about it, but it has to move beyond a pipe dream, to action.

Zanele Morrison, Director of Marketing and Corporate Affairs at the JSE, says, “The challenge remains across the globe to ensure that women participate in economic stock markets, not only as builders of businesses and raising of communities, they need to actively hold a stake in industries that supply them directly with goods and services. We need to create the space for women to participate in leadership and executive positions; proven over and over, diversity and inclusion leads to more sustainable and vibrant business in the long term.”

There are studies that support her viewpoint. A Working Paper by the Peterson Institute for International Economics commented on the profitability of gender diversity. They found that, “For profitable firms, a move from no female leaders to 30 percent representation is associated with a 15 percent increase in the net revenue margin.”

It goes on to say that, “The positive correlation between the presence of women in corporate leadership and profitability could reflect the existence of discrimination against women executives, which gives non-discriminating firms an edge. Alternatively, it could be that the presence of women contributes to superior performance via functional diversity.”

So where do we start? “A great place to start is bias training,” says Geraldine Moodley, advisor on diversity and inclusive leadership, when asked about the first steps for companies that are trying to become more inclusive. “Everyone is programmed in ways they don’t realise. You’ll always process things in the way you’re most comfortable with — and you have to be aware of that.”

When you start realising your own bias, you can make better decisions on who to hire, for example. Are you hiring someone because they would be a great fit for the job, or are you just looking to fill the position? Perhaps you’re unconsciously searching for someone who looks like you? According to Geraldine, we usually only see one dimension of someone, but it’s important to see all aspects of their personality. But all of this can’t just change overnight: “It has to be a behavioural change — there’s no quick fix.”

A 2019 survey by Ipsos reveals that globally, 75% of respondents said they would be comfortable with having a female boss. And following a 2018 IWG gender gap report, it was revealed that 69% of upper middle management roles at International Workplace Group (IWG), the operating brand of Regus, Spaces, HQ, Signature and No. 18 are occupied by women, and women represent close to half (41%) of top paying roles at the company.

For Joanne Bushell, IWG Managing Director for Africa, the reason lies in IWG’s unique company culture in which diversity, flexibility and balance are core values.

As a boss, she has made a conscious effort to continue the IWG legacy. “I believe in diversity and the impact of diverse teams on performance. It is our mission to build teams with this outlook and giving female leaders a fair chance to step up. I’ve definitely had a chance to achieve this while working for IWG.

“When I hire people, I’m not concerned that because they are a mother, or because they might have to look after someone at home, they won’t be capable to deliver a great job. It just never crosses my mind. At IWG, flexibility is at the top of the agenda.” Bushell adds.

With IWG’s recent Global Workspace Survey concluding that 83% of professionals would turn down a job without flexible working, the call to South African companies to promote flexibility and fairness at work is timely.

“As technology is truly enabling flexibility, it’s about time we make use of it and let our people work flexibly. If a boss gives employees the time and space to get their home life totally under control, it fosters loyalty, job satisfaction and ultimately the kind of employee productivity that drives results,” Joanne says.

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