One small step for man, one giant leap for women

One small step for man, one giant leap for women

Originally published in Balanced Life magazine


In May last year, Judge Mandisa Maya became president of the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa. In October, Judge Brenda Hale was sworn in as president of the Supreme Court of the UK.

What was unique about these appointments was that each of these judges is the first woman ever to hold her respective position. Naturally, a fuss was made. Diversity policy-makers patted themselves on the back. Feminists added one to the ‘win’ column. Newspapers here and in the UK rushed to publish articles that pointed out in the first paragraph (if not the headline) that it was, in fact, a woman who had scooped the job in question. 

The fact that the focus in these cases was the judge’s gender, rather than, say, her legal outlook, tells us one thing: that a woman in leadership is still considered the exception, not the rule. After all, when last did you see a headline that read ‘Man is appointed to position of power’? 

The Grant Thornton ‘Women in Business’ report offers an annual review of women in leadership positions globally, with research based on surveys of 5 500 businesses in 36 economies. According to the 2017 edition, only 28% of senior management roles in South Africa are held by women. Thirteen years ago, when the research began, we were at 26%. In short, we haven’t come very far at all. 

Why the slow burn? What’s holding women back? And how do we fix it?


The unconscious enemy

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who admits to consciously promoting men over women. There’s a far more subtle force at work here than some boys’ club of sexist CEOs puffing on cigars and telling their female employees to get back into the kitchen and make them a sandwich.

In her TedX Talk ‘The Surprising Neuroscience of Gender Inequality’, US scientist Janet Crawford explains the idea of ‘implicit bias’. ‘All of us, male and female, are unconsciously gender biased. These biases lead well-meaning men and women to [become] unwitting accomplices in the perpetuation of inequity and discrimination.

‘Conscious decision-making represents a tiny fraction of what goes on in your brain. What [the brain mostly] calls on is a vast reservoir of unconsciously stored associations. Your brain is always scanning for repeating patterns. When it finds them, it stores them as “the way things are”. The problem is that your brain isn’t differentiating around the utility, fairness or accuracy of what the environment is serving up.’

Janet cites the Implicit Association Test, which asks participants to rapidly associate words with the image of a man or a woman. Some 16 million people around the world have participated in the test. ‘Most people, male or female, regardless of political orientation, have an easier time associating words like “leader”, “strong” and “protective” with men, and “nurturing”, “emotional” and “fragile” with women.’

Janet says we acquire these biases everywhere, from our offices and social media feeds to the fact that women still account for less than 30% of protagonists in mainstream films. Are we fighting a losing battle then? How do we put a stop to something we don’t even realise we’re doing? 

Together – that’s how. 

‘No piece of legislation, mandatory sexual harassment training or quota system will get rid of unconscious bias. These things are necessary, but when we focus only on overt sexism, we miss the point. Worse yet, we allow ourselves to point the finger at a hypothetical bad guy “out there”,’ says Janet. “But when we understand that we are biased too, we’re able to transform this conversation from one of blame and shame to one of action. Commit yourself to becoming a good observer of your environment. Engage with other people. Get curious. Fuel an exploration. When you see bias or the environments that drive it, say something. Talk about it. Where you can, change it. Nobody is to blame for this problem, but each of us is responsible for the solution.’


Start it from the bottom

The ‘Women in Business’ report reveals that the women who do fill senior management positions in South Africa are most likely to be in supportive roles, such as HR and finance directors, rather than being CEOs (that number has climbed to only 10% in 2017). 

Lee-Ann Bac, the director of advisory services at Grant Thornton in Joburg, believes this is due to a sense of complacency among local business. ‘Businesses have put some women in management positions, ticked that box, and now they are not doing anything further.’ 

She believes the solution is for companies to be constantly looking at ways to improve their gender diversity as a whole. Then, when the time comes to select someone to move up the ranks, there will be a pool of capable woman candidates who are difficult to ignore.


Changing the face of leadership

Another reason more women aren’t landing top jobs? They may not want them in the first place.

‘The issue is that what women see of leadership isn’t always that attractive,’ says Sacha Romanovitch, CEO at Grant Thornton UK. ‘I think women are looking for a more fundamental shift in what leadership looks like and what is expected of people in senior leadership positions.’ 

She alludes to the traditional ‘hero model’: the self-sacrificer for whom the job is all-consuming, complete with late nights at the office and a constantly pinging smartphone. This outdated picture of leadership leaves little room for much else, like family and a healthy work-life balance. Mandisa, for example, is a married mother of three, but told Times Live that her illustrious law career came at the cost of spending time with her children when they were young. 

It’s not just about levelling the playing field, then, but redesigning the goal posts completely. Tomorrow’s CEOs – male and female – need a model of leadership that looks more appealing, including features such as flexitime, longer paternity leave and woman-friendly office facilities like on-site creches and nursing rooms.


The home front

Then there’s the fact that for most women, work doesn’t end at the end of the work day. Nearly every working mother has tried to be that woman who ‘has it all’: conquering the business world while maintaining a Beyoncé body, making brownies from scratch, remembering to pay the plumber and picking up the kids from playdates – and only keeping it all together with a crisp Chardonnay and the hope that tomorrow will be less stressful.  

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Global Gender Gap Index, women globally spend an average of four hours more per day than men doing unpaid work, such as childcare and household duties. ‘The burden of unpaid work in the household is still predominantly on women,’ says Till Leopold of the WEF. ‘A more equitable distribution of unpaid and paid work would definitely be a big part of the solution here.’

‘Unfortunately, we have a very patriarchal culture in South Africa,’ adds Lee-Ann. ‘Until we make a concerted effort to change our mindset about the role of women at home, we’re going to continue to battle with inequality in the workplace.’ 


Is it 2018 or 1950?

4 hours 47 mins The number of hours a woman spends doing unpaid work each day, including childcare and household chores

1 hour 30 mins The same number for men

Source: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index 2016


And don’t even get us started on the pay gap…

On average, in South Africa, for every R1 you earn, a man earns R1.64

Source: Global Gender Gap Index 2016 World Economic Forum


Why diversity matters

Gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform competitors

Racially diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform competitors

Source: ‘Diversity Matters’ February 2015 report by global management consulting firm McKinsey&Company

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