Few and Far Between: Female Chief Executives in Corporate Africa

This past month, the world came together to celebrate the economic, social and political achievements of women globally. The rallying call and theme for the 2015 International Women’s Day celebrations was to Make It Happen – a phrase that resonates with many women working to climb the corporate ladder while navigating the all too complex world of gender equality.

Gender Representation Globally

According to the World Economic Forum, it would take approximately 80 years to achieve global gender parity in our workplaces if we continue at the current pace of change. That is not to say that there have been no efforts to crack the glass ceiling. Global corporations are increasingly electing more women to their boards. However, in some regions, the numbers still remain startlingly small. A study done by Catalyst, an international gender and leadership research firm, found that only 19.2% of board seats in the US S&P 500 index were held by women. In Europe, Norway leads with 35.5% while the UK has 22.8% female representation on the FTSE 100 companies. In the Asia Pacific region, Hong Kong, with the highest number of female executives on boards, stands at 10.2% in comparison to Japan’s 3.1%. The tremendous gap in women’s leadership on a global scale is all the more acute if we focus on the CEO title as a proxy for leadership attainment. This trend is seen in the US where women hold 24 CEO positions or 4.8% of S&P 500 companies and in the UK where 5% of the FTSE 100 companies are led by female CEOs.

Given the reality that women constitute an increasing percentage of the educated workforce, one has to wonder why do we not see a replication of these numbers in an analysis of women executives in the global corporate sphere?

The Africa Context

Shining the spotlight on Africa, an analysis of the top 200 businesses on the continent reveals that only 2.5% of the CEOs for these companies are women. The female CEOs of ABSA Group, Remgro, Stanbic IBTC, Santam and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) are drawn from only 2 of the 18 countries represented on the list – namely South Africa and Nigeria. In comparison to the rest of the continent, South Africa is doing well with the highest number of female CEOs in Africa. In absolute terms, however, South Africa still has a merely nominal representation of female executives. Only 4.4% of CEOs across all industries are women and of the 25 largest JSE listed companies, only 2 have 25% or more director positions held by women. Nicky Newton-King, the CEO of the JSE is working to change that. Ranked among the top 20 largest stock exchanges in the world, the JSE is not only led and chaired by women, but Mrs. King’s Executive Committee is 72% female. Her board has also achieved gender parity with a 50-50 representation. Despite these achievements, only 2 women are listed on South Africa’s top 100 CEOs – Mrs. King being one of them. These numbers, when held up against the narrative of Africa Rising suggest a lack of clear incentives for ensuring inclusive advancement of women to leadership positions in corporate Africa.

Government Intervention

Despite increasing recognition for the value women bring to corporate boards and C-Suite leadership, global corporations continue a slow march towards gender diversity. Governments are now stepping in, via legislations, to accelerate the closing of gender gaps and to equalize representation in the workplace, in both emerging markets and established economies. Kenya for example, is one of the fourteen countries worldwide and two in Africa that have passed a legislation that requires companies to meet quotas for women representation on boards, with Kenya’s quota being 33%. South Africa has also promulgated the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill which calls for 50% representation of women in decision-making positions in public and private structures.

Despite increasing recognition for the value women bring to corporate boards and C-Suite leadership, global corporations continue a slow march towards gender diversity. Governments are now stepping in, via legislations, to accelerate the closing of gender gaps and to equalize representation in the workplace, in both emerging markets and established economies. Kenya for example, is one of the fourteen countries worldwide and two in Africa that have passed a legislation that requires companies to meet quotas for women representation on boards, with Kenya’s quota being 33%. South Africa has also promulgated the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill which calls for 50% representation of women in decision-making positions in public and private structures.

Accelerating Progress

Quotas the world over are controversial but no one can deny the need for gender parity. In order to accelerate the projected 80 year countdown to achieving this goal, we need stronger commitment to appointing women in leadership and governance positions in corporate Africa. We need more women in C-Suite roles and we need more women on corporate boards. Many would also agree there is a great deal of female leadership talent that lies untapped or underutilized in corporate Africa. A few key questions remain: what changes do organizations need to adopt, aside from implementing quotas, to progress an agenda on diversity and gender parity? How do we “Make It Happen” and gain momentum in female leadership in corporate Africa? What specific roles can men and women in strong leadership positions play in catalyzing broader change within their respective organizations?

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