EMPOWERING WOMEN

It has been 60 years since the historic march on 9 August 1956 when South African women rallied against the injustices of Apartheid. Today ABSIP is on an active drive to empower women in the business world.

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South Africa is renowned for its inclusive and liberal policies regarding race and gender in the workplace. As many are however aware, besides the enormous amount of work that has been done to promote these goals in the business world, we are only starting to see its effects with many miles ahead to ensure equal and fair representation in years to come.

When looking at women representation in the dynamic South African business sector, reports and attitudes remain mixed. According to a recent Grant Thornton report the number of women in South Africa in senior positions in the corporate space has gone down by four percentage points in 2016 from 27% to 23%. The report, entitled Women in Business: Turning Promise into Practice has also revealed that 39% of local businesses do not have any women in leadership positions.

This is contrasted by the fact that in the 2016 financial year, R310 million has been invested in female entrepreneurs with the majority going to businesses in traditionally male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and retail: “41% of Business/Partners' clients are female-owned SMEs, where at least 25% of the business is owned by women, and in which the female entrepreneur is actively involved,” a recent Bizcommunity report reveals.

The Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals (ABSIP) has placed specific emphasis on empowering women in the financial service sector at its recent AWIF (Women in Focus) Summit, Sixty years on­—Women as Torchbearers. According to ABSIP, “South Africa is not doing well economically and transformation in the financial service sector is not happening at a satisfactory pace.” ABSIP is of the view that we need to have conversations to “remind ourselves that like the women of 1956 who became the light and fought against injustices, the current generation also has a critical role to play in shaping and being the light in our society.”

The AWIF Summit took a close look at the role of young women in lighting up the financial service industry, and unpacked what it really means to be a torchbearer within a South African context. This is according to ABSIP President, Tryphosa Ramano who further remarked that, “Companies and organisations are beginning to realise that women are a valuable resource in the search for talent to lead into the future. That is why more companies and organisations are developing more opportunities for female leaders, by creating leadership development programmes, organising mentoring programs, and forming corporate women's networks and ABSIP encourages such empowerment programmes.”

Delivering her keynote address at the event in September, Speaker and Member of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, reiterated that the specific focus on women in finance and business is “really important”. She says this is not because women are any better than men, nor any worse, but because the industry is still dominated by men. She points out that the finance sector, particularly when it comes to the boardroom, remains a frontier where the playing field still has to be significantly levelled.

Mbete stressed that it is a critical playing field because corporate directors are among the most important decision makers in the financial system. She went on to state that initiatives such as the ABSIP are vital, ground-breaking organisations for networking, mentoring and the building of strong, competitive women leaders. “In our second decade of freedom the economic inclusion of women is a priority for the ANC led government. The reason is obvious. Nine years into the worst global financial crisis, the recovery is still too tepid and too turbulent. South Africa faces grave challenges to growth—as a slower growth has set in since 2009, which has a domino effect setting off further increases in economic inequalities.

“Given these challenges, we will need all the economic growth, dynamism and ingenuity we can get in the years ahead. Thankfully, a key part of the solution is staring us right in the face—unleashing the economic power of women. Bringing the world’s largest excluded group into the fold. Well it’s 2016, and change is long overdue in the financial sector. I’m proud of South Africa’s success in Financial Services. But I’m also convinced that our achievements in this sector will not be sustainable unless we embrace diversity and programmes that advances women representation in the governance structures of this sector,” Mbete said.

To contextualise the discussion further, Mbete pointed out that to some degree or other, women everywhere face barriers that hinder them from flourishing and achieving their full potential. She said gender gaps in labour force participation exists all over the world, ranging from 12% in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) economies to 50% in the Middle East and Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is somewhere in the middle according to her with female participation rate at 20 percentage points lower than males.

“Another global reality: when women do participate, they tend to be stuck in low-paying, low-status jobs. Globally, women earn only three-quarters as much as men—this is true even with the same level of education, and in the same occupation. Again, this is an acute issue in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a gender wage gap of 29%—on the high side for a developing economy. Women also tend to be overrepresented in less secure jobs—such as informal, temporary, or part-time work. This is partly because they are locked out of higher-status careers or higher-paying jobs.

“We can see this clearly in South Africa. Many large companies reserve the permanent positions—the coveted positions —for men, and women flock to lower-paying and less secure jobs. Globally, women also tend to be locked out of leadership positions, where gender seems to matter more than ability. Women make up only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. They account for only 24% of senior management positions around the world—these numbers are fairly consistent across Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America. In South Africa, it is mere 10% in top positions and 12% in senior positions. In 2016, this statistic is really shocking,” Mbete said.

Delaying economic development

Her stern remarks that follows makes it abundantly clear that there is work to be done in this regard, “corporates are not harnessing the immense productive capacity and potential of women to drive global economic growth. Unfortunately this delays economic development of many societies and reinforces global gender inequalities. We cannot afford it. This needs to change.”

Mbete shined a light on the fact that “the benefits of greater inclusion are clear—not just for women, but for all of us.” She said for a start, women being the majority in many societies, are the ultimate agents of aggregated demand, accounting for 70% of global consumer spending. “So if we want growth, let us put women in the driver’s seat.”

She furthered the conversation with a clear-cut prerogative with regard to the labour market, “we have to start with raising women to the position of men!” Mbete said it is known that by eliminating gender gaps in the labour force, participation can lead to big jumps in income per capita. This she says is true everywhere in the world, especially in developing regions like the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Mbete said it is a well-known fact that higher levels of female employment have a powerful ripple-effect with improved socio-economic indicators.

“We also know from the business side that prejudice does not pay. Companies that are open to women do better than companies that are closed,” she said. Mbete pointed out that for example, the Fortune 500 companies with the best records of promoting women have been shown to be 18 to 69% more profitable than the median firm in their area. “We can see this in South Africa too. South African firms with the most women managers reported returns on equity exceeding 10%, while the firms with the least women managers had low or negative returns on equity. So excluding women simply makes no economic sense—and including women can be a tremendous boon to the 21st century global economy,” she said.

So how can South Africa go about unleashing the economic power and potential of women? Mbete started by bringing economic policies to light and said that we know there is a plethora of excellent enabling legislation in place. She said in this regard, as a country South Africa has adopted a basket of equity legislation to deal with issues of accessibility and levelling the playing field. “Despite the challenges of implementation or enforcement, I am convinced that these policies can work,” she said.

Mbete made reference to the fact that elsewhere in the world where progressive policies are in place there is clear evidence that such policies are yielding results. She used Chile as an example which saw female labour force participation rise by 20 percentage points over the past quarter century. A lot of this reflects cultural change, but much is also tied into and reflective of economic policy, according to her. “And the benefit is clear, when we boost the participation of women, we boost the growth potential of a country.”

Another major area affecting women’s empowerment Mbete said is law and institutions. She referenced recent research undertaken by the United Nations which revealed that gender gaps are lower when men and women are treated equally under the law, with specific focus on inheritance, property, and economic opportunity. Mbete said at the moment, South Africa has enabling legislation in place, but that laws and intuitions cannot fix everything.

“We also need to change attitudes away from a male-dominated culture, to make it more open and receptive to the great contributions offered by women—in society in general, and in business in particular. This means knocking down the outdated obstacles that hold women back,” Mbete said.

Adding to the focus on means to empower women, Mbete alluded that it is encouraging when she looks at statistics that indicate that women in South Africa are often found among the highest of educated individuals. “We all know that they have the ability, the potential, and the desire to contribute even more. We must empower them to do so!” Mbete confessed that she is aware that Government is working “flat-out” to level the playing field in the working world and states emphatically that she supports this prerogative completely and wholeheartedly.

New mentality required

On a final point, Mbete pointed out that there is a need for a new business culture which will require a new mentality and outlook for both women and men alike. She said the lesson is clear, if we want a strong and bright economic future, then we need strong and bright women to help drive it. This she says means that all strands of society need to embrace inclusion and diversity.

“As you rise, in the finance sector, I want to urge you not to forget women in your our efforts to develop new financial products and services. Broad based black economic empowerment can only be credible when women are the biggest beneficiaries of such empowerment initiatives. The financial sector commands huge resources that are critically needed for the financing of women initiated ventures. The second transition can only be realised if we fight for women economic empowerment. We would have failed many heroines who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for women emancipation if we dare abdicate this responsibility,” Mbete concluded.

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