The year so far has been a good one for South African companies on the gender transformation front, with statistics seemingly moving in the right direction for the first time in recent history, and notable appointments of women to top leadership positions. The good news stories are not the full picture however, as too many companies still battle to effect meaningful and sustainable change in the gender makeup of their top leadership teams, an expert says.

“The appointment of two black women to the CEO positions of two heavyweight SA companies was a noteworthy demonstration of corporate South Africa’s commitment to gender transformation. This is positive news, particularly in light of statistics that show women landing 52% of senior leadership roles in 2018, overtaking men for the first time since 2015,” says Advaita Naidoo, COO of Jack Hammer, Africa’s largest independent executive search firm with offices across the continent as well as Los Angeles.

Given the fact that the data* further showed that 2018 was not an outlier, with appointments of women consistently rising year-on-year from 26% in 2015, to 32% (2016), 38% (2017) and ultimately 52% last year, the perception might be that the transformation item on the to-do list of SA companies is now well and truly ticked, and that attention can move to more pressing concerns.

“Unfortunately, although the big picture looks positive, the devil is still there in the detail, and we are seeing too many companies still struggling to find great female leaders for their top teams, despite their best intentions and desire to do so,” says Naidoo.

“Make no mistake, the commitment is there, but when it comes to execution, many companies are still wide of the mark. In particular, when you look at their leadership pipeline, the odds that they will be in a position to appoint a woman in one of their most senior positions are still way too slim.”

Naidoo says there are two indicators of a company’s potential to effect meaningful gender transformation, namely having women in strategically influential executive roles, as well as strong female representation at non-executive board level.

“To use a sports metaphor – you can’t score runs if you don’t swing the bat. Translated, this means that if companies are truly motivated to try to shift the needle on the gender demographic when it comes to CEO and senior supporting roles, they have to start populating their executive teams with a sufficient number of women in relevant roles. In other words, don’t wait until a position opens up to start searching for the leader. Instead, make sure you have the leaders lined up and ready to step in when the position opens,” says Naidoo.

“So companies that are serious about gender transformation yet find themselves continuously flailing and struggling to make the changes they desire, have to ensure that they start actively sourcing and appointing women to critical profit-and-loss, core business roles, as well as board positions.”

Naidoo notes the standard concern voiced by companies, including in the USA, is that there is an insufficient number of women at executive levels for consideration to the top role. Global data supports this contention, showing an average 70:30 male-to-female ratio at senior executive levels.

“If you then take a closer look at the roles that the women are occupying, you find that there are far fewer who are running a full-scale business division, or have accountability for P&L or Operations or Finance. Women are mostly to be found in supporting roles such as HR, Marketing, Legal, and Compliance.

“There are only a few roles that are likely internal succession potential from executive level to CEO. And if you don’t have women in these positions, then the likelihood of women even making it to the shortlist of internal succession candidates for the CEO position is minimal.”

Naidoo says the era of making gender-transformed appointments for the sake of doing so should be a thing of the past.

“There is ample evidence to support the business case for gender transformation, and there is great talent out there. Increasing diversity in leadership is not rocket science, it is simply a matter of vision and strategy, and getting your ducks in a row well before you are required to act.”

* The data is informed by placement statistics compiled annually by Jack Hammer.

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