A picture satirising women in the workplace. Socio-economic inequality between men and women in SA has decreased according to a report by the MasterCard Worldwide Index of Women's Advancement
A picture satirising women in the workplace. Socio-economic inequality between men and women in SA has decreased according to a report by the MasterCard Worldwide Index of Women's Advancement

CONSIDERING that women in the workplace have been common since at least the 1960s, why do we harp on about the issue?

As long as women at all levels continue to express their dissatisfaction with the conditions in their work, the issue of what South African companies should do to be more attractive to women will have to be addressed.

One of the most important reasons is that it makes economic sense. Research has shown that companies with more women on their boards consistently outperform those with fewer women.

The return in sales was higher by 42%, return on invested capital higher by 66% and return on equity higher by 53%, according to nonprofit organisation Catalyst's report titled The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women's Performance on Boards .

This study was carried out in Europe and the situation would not be vastly different in South Africa.

The world's future competitive advantage lies with women. This is because key leadership behaviours such as participative decision-making, role-modelling and the development of people come naturally to women .

In South Africa today, women comprise about 45% of the workforce and a lot has been done to create equal opportunities. But there is still a lot to be done to make the work environment more women-friendly, particularly at managerial and executive levels.

In the executive search division at Mindcor, we meet women at these levels and come across anecdotal evidence that many are frustrated because of a lack of women-friendly policies and the absence of recognition of the challenges that are particular to women. This is one of the reasons why there are few women in top leadership positions.

In many cases, the women describe having to put up with sexism and working twice as hard to prove themselves.

In many instances, women choose to give up and either settle for middle-management positions, or leave to start their own small businesses. Capable women are lost to corporate South Africa.

This is not a uniquely South African problem, as shown by the statistics. Of 195 countries, only 17 have female leaders. In the Fortune 500 companies in the US, only 5% of the top positions are held by women. Globally, only 20% of parliamentary seats are held by women.

What should South African companies do to make themselves more attractive to women?

Factors contributing to a women-friendly work environment were identified during a recent executive leadership symposium held by the local branch of the International Women's Forum.

South Africa is still a largely patriarchal society. For example, it is usually the woman who has to take a sick child to the doctor and look after him or her if there is no one else to do it. This can create the impression that the woman is not serious about her career.

Women are not only judged on how good they are at their jobs, but also on their capability as mothers, wives and housekeepers. Women therefore appreciate companies that enable them to strike a balance between work and home life and are supportive of working mothers.

 In this regard, companies that offer such things as maternity benefits, childcare facilities and flexible working hours are particularly attractive to women. Work-life balance is also important and they would equally appreciate the flexibility to be able to pursue other interests outside of the workplace.

Women also prefer to work for companies where they are given opportunities to develop and offered coaching and mentoring.

The latter is particularly important, because women often feel that they lack guidance in how to successfully navigate the corporate environment.

For example, women often lack confidence in successfully negotiating their employment contracts and conditions of employment.

They sometimes also feel out of depth when they are promoted to managerial or executive levels and need coaching and mentoring in their new positions.

A company that has gender diversity and female role models at the executive level makes women aspire to such positions and they tend to stay at such companies.

 •  Moyo is a consultant at the Mindcor Group

*This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers