More warrior spirits please: Only seven of SA’s top 100 listed companies have women CEOs

Momentum Metropolitan Holdings just appointed its first woman CEO, and rumour is out that Eskom may also appoint its first woman CEO, but women leaders remain a minority. What is to be done and how can women channel their ‘warrior spirit’ in leadership?

Women CEOs make news headlines simply for being women when they are appointed or when they resign. Last month, it was reported by South African media houses including News 24 and Business Live  that Jeanette Marais has been appointed as Momentum Metropolitan Holdings’ new CEO, with headlines foregrounding her gender. Similarly, in February this year the news that Natascha Viljoen, CEO of Anglo Platinum, announced her resignation and that she was leaving South Africa was reported by Daily Maverick and other media houses, with Moneyweb hailing her as a “breaker of glass ceilings”. Worldwide Fortune 500 data shows that women make up just over 10% of CEO positions. In South Africa, not that far behind,  PwC’s Executive Directors Report 2022, reports that only seven of the top 100 listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) have women as CEOs.

The ‘Warrior Spirit’ of women leaders

Regenesys Corporate Education is launching a course in August 2023 which is centred on developing women leaders’ deep sense of self and channelling what it calls “the warrior spirit” of women leaders. This “spirit” is characterised by the qualities of being resilient, analytical, assertive, passionate and knowing her worth and why she is in the position that she is.  Tresella Nayager, one of the course designers, articulates that “women in leadership” is “a field on its own within leadership and management which different countries approach differently, but all agree that the reason for its existence is because women are not given their rightful place in business and leadership roles, especially at the top, specifically executive management, C-suit level positions”. This comes from discrimination against women over generations. Training women for leadership through programmes such as its own, Regenesys aims to address this gap.

The course is aimed at developing healthy inner-dialogs of women leaders to foster resilience in overcoming and fighting against the hurdles specific to women in the workplace such as unconscious biases, microaggressions, and unequal pay.

Unequal pay, Microaggressions and Mansplaining

Africa has a median gender pay gap between 23% and 35%, which is higher than the global average of 20%. Women also experience bias and discrimination in the workplace not only in the form of  unequal pay, but also  microaggressions and sexual harassment. Women of colour, face double bias of race and gender, including a lack of access to capital as well as racial prejudices of scepticism of the concept of black excellence. When men over-explain things that women know already, it’s called “mansplaining”, see the book Glass Ceilings Women in SA media, published by GenderLinks (2018)  for examples of this patronising tendency, which is plain sexism.

Dr Penny Law, Co-founder and Executive Director of Regenesys explains that “we operate in a workplace that’s influenced by unconscious bias. When women express their opinions strongly, the general perception is that they are aggressive. On the other hand, when men express their opinions strongly, they are perceived as being assertive. A women’s contribution in a meeting, is sometimes overlooked. However, when a man makes exactly the same point a few minutes later, he is not only acknowledged but deemed to have made an important contribution. When men speak, people listen. The experience of micro aggressions could lead to women experiencing imposter syndrome because they don’t feel they belong[…] The fight for gender equality is complex as the effects of patriarchy are systemic.” 

South Africa Warrior-spirited women

Warrior-spirited women must lead with their male allies.

If we consider that men are still the prime beneficiaries of the status-quo of the existing social order, then empowering women is, in part, men’s work. That is, men need to take on the role of being allies.  When men advocate for women in leadership, they’re more likely to be taken seriously than if it were only women rallying behind other women, according to a 2014 study published by Wiley

An ally is defined as a “person who holds a position of privilege and power and can advocate and take action to support [an underrepresented] group without taking over their voice”. For Regenesys Corporate Education CEO Kapil Jaggeth, being  an ally is “an on-going commitment that requires continuous support and learning, awareness, self-reflection and most importantly, action”. He further elucidates that acting means being a person who does things for the person(s) of whom one considers themselves an ally. This entails “being a support mechanism, a learning mechanism, and a research-sharing mechanism”[…]. An ally in this sense needs to bring about equity”. Jaggeth further explains that men can learn from how women on how to do things differently.

Women in leadership: the power of networking and learning

There is ample research to suggest that when marginalized group members have colleagues as allies, they have increased job satisfaction, lower anxiety, and a stronger workplace commitment.  It is through engagement with men in leadership positions, awareness and diversity training, as well as through networks to empower women in leadership that progress in gender equity can be made.

For leaders, men and women alike, the importance of research with the latest statistics, as shown here, thought-leadership articles, consciousness raising, debates about concepts such as “male allies”, leadership training whether together or separately, executive coaching, masterclasses, board training, mentorship and networking – all surely have some value. Women who face gender-based barriers to success, need learning solutions that are tailored to their particular experiences and contexts.

 Women leaders can also empower one another through networking and learning together. There is also the argument, that because men hold more than 90% of the top position, they can play a role, be a bit self-reflexive and make way, or room at the table. Male leaders in business can come to the party and play their ally roles here – if they genuinely believe in a non-sexist future. Bring on the warrior spirits please.

Written by Alexandra Willis

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