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Gender-diverse groups outperform homogeneous ones

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Picture: Timothy Bernard. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in Sandton. At the slow rate of gender transformation, it could take more than 50 years to achieve gender equality in the leadership of these JSE-listed companies, the writer says.

By Dr Nozi Mjoli

As we reach the end of this year’s Women’s Month, it is important to reflect on the progress towards the achievement of gender equality in the workplace with special reference to the representation of women in top leadership positions. According to the PwC South Africa Executive Directors report 2022, only seven of the top 100 Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies are led by women chief executives.

At the slow rate of gender transformation, it could take more than 50 years to achieve gender equality in the leadership of these JSE-listed companies. The 2019/20 annual report of the Commission for Employment Equity presents a slightly better picture in terms of women’s representation at the top management level, which was 24.4 percent compared with the 2001 figure of 13 percent. It is also encouraging to note that significant gender transformation has been achieved at the senior management level with women accounting for 35.3 percent in 2020. There is a growing body of knowledge which indicates that gender diversity in boards and top management teams can contribute to improvement in the financial performance of companies.

This has been attributed to the inherent feminine leadership traits that women bring to leadership teams. There is evidence that gender-diverse leadership teams are able to innovate and compete more effectively in a rapidly changing global economic environment which is characterised by high levels of uncertainty and complexity.

Women represent a huge pool of untapped talent that could fill the skills shortage being experienced globally as millions of baby boomers are due to retire by 2030. Working women also represent a huge growing market for consumer goods and services. Therefore, companies that want to capture this huge female market must promote gender-diverse leadership so they can improve their understanding of this market, to improve their profitability.

Gender-diverse leadership teams working together can draw from the diverse knowledge, experience and perspectives of men and women to solve complex problems and accelerate innovation. Research has shown that diverse perspectives and different experiences are important in solving complex problems in a rapidly changing global economic environment. Diverse groups of talented men and women always outperform homogeneous groups. Homogeneous executive management teams of men of the same age group, same nationality and same educational background are not adequately equipped to respond to the challenges of a diverse, multicultural, complex and dynamic global economic environment.

Progressive companies have recognised that gender-diverse leadership is a competitive advantage and a critical business imperative. Companies with a more robust mix of talented men and women in their top leadership teams always outperform their less diverse counterparts as measured by the return on investment. The 2022 PwC South Africa report has attributed the poor representation of women in top leadership positions to a skills shortage. It is unclear what specific factors are preventing women from acquiring the required leadership skills to become CEOs. This shows that an enabling policy and legislative framework for gender equality in the workplace is not adequate for the acceleration of gender equality in top leadership positions.

Other factors continue to impede the advancement of women to top leadership positions in public and private sector organisations. It is necessary to identify the limiting factors that contribute to the poor representation of women in top leadership positions; these include fear of failure, low self-confidence, coupled with low self-esteem.

Confidence is defined as a firm belief in one’s abilities. It originates from one’s sense of self, not from the opinions of others. Confident people believe they are destined for greatness and they don’t rely on others for validation. Women are more likely to experience low self-confidence than their male counterparts.

“Gender confidence gap” is a term that has been coined to refer to the difference in confidence levels of men and women. It can be attributed to the impacts of a patriarchal society that has sustained gender inequalities for centuries by entrenching beliefs that boys are destined to be leaders of households and society while girls are destined to be subordinate to men. Confidence is instilled in boys from an early age to prepare them for their future leadership roles, and submissiveness is instilled in girls to prepare them for their future subordinate roles in society. This explains why low self-confidence and low self-esteem affect more women than men.

Due to this gender confidence gap, few highly qualified women have the courage and confidence to apply for top leadership positions, because they don’t believe in themselves. Since men have been programmed to believe they are natural leaders, they readily apply for top leadership positions even when they meet less than 50 percent of the requirements.

There is evidence that confidence is more important than competence when it comes to the selection of suitable candidates for appointment to top leadership positions. Women must focus on building their self-confidence and self-esteem so they can compete successfully for top leadership positions. They must also learn to be resilient and authentic to earn the respect of their followers. Men and women must work together to dismantle the pillars of patriarchy so gender equality can become the norm in society.

Mjoli is chairperson of the Water Research Commission and a gender activist