Why Are There So Few Women In Boardrooms?

A report, entitled “Where are the Women? Inclusive Boardrooms in Africa’s Top-Listed Companies” published by the African Development Bank (AfDB), states that women make up only 14.4% on the boards of Africa’s top 307 listed companies. Africa is just behind Europe, which stands at 18% and The United States of America, which is at 16.9%, and is also the leader in the developing world, ahead of Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East.

African countries that boast the highest number of female board membership are Kenya (19.8%), South Africa (17.4%), Botswana (16.9%), Zambia (16.9%) and Ghana (17.7%); and companies with the highest number of women on their boards include East Africa Breweries of Kenya (45.5% – 5 women out of 11 board directors), followed by three South African firms, Impala Platinum Holdings (38.5% – 5 women out of 13 board directors) Kumba Iron Ore (36.4% – 4 out of 11) and Woolworths Holdings (30.8% – 4 out of 13).

Sectors that favour female board membership are printing and publishing/media, basic materials and utilities, real estate and construction. The industries which lag others in bringing women into the boardroom are largely male-dominated industries. The Transportation industry has the lowest percentage of women on boards with just 3.7% women directors on the boards of the ten companies included in the study. The Mining industry is slightly better at 5.5%, while the Agriculture industry averages 6.3% women directors.

Africa may be in a favourable position in the world’s regions on having companies with female board members, but the continent has a long way to go to ensure its strong economic growth includes its most talented women at the top. According to the report 32.9% of boards have no women, 33.6% have only 1 woman on the board and 18.9% have 2 women in the board. That leaves us with two thirds of companies in Africa with minimal female presence in their boardrooms. The poorest showing for female board membership was registered by small and mid-cap companies, which account for a large share of the growth and vitality of Africa’s rising stock markets.

There have been policy changes in both the public and private sector to ensure that gender diversity is achieved. Kenya and South Africa have government mandates for women’s representation on the boards of state-owned companies. The New Constitution passed in 2010 in Kenya included language addressing gender discrimination throughout the government, pushed for by several civil society groups. One of the key results was a mandate stating that “not more than two thirds of the members of elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender.”

As a result, the percentage of women board directors in state-owned companies increased from 15% in 2010 to 20% in 2012, according to a report published by the Kenya Institute of Management. This seeming effectiveness of the mandate, however, is due to the persistent efforts of civil society organizations (such as the Federation of Women Lawyers and Women’s Empowerment Link) and the media, which help to keep companies accountable.

Kenya, Morocco, Malawi, Nigeria and South Africa have also integrated gender diversity into principles of good corporate governance. Kenya made this inclusion back in 2002, the first such mention in any corporate governance code globally, one year ahead of Finland and 2 years ahead of Norway and Sweden. Policies vary across the board, but adopting quotas that require corporate boards to maintain particular levels of gender balance is the most common.

These have been seen to be highly effective in many European countries, for example in Norway, if a company fails to comply to various gender balance policies, certain laws authorize the state to dissolve it. However in Africa, corporate governance is still in its infancy and the nomination process is not as transparent. The difference in size of boards (private companies tend to have smaller boards) and the few limitations on length of board service leads to fewer opportunities of change in their leadership.

But why exactly are there such few women at the top?

Usually, board members tap into the networks of existing directors and executives which were curated through ‘old boy networks’ – informal systems of support and friendship through which men use their positions of influence to help others who went to the same school or college as they did or who share a similar social background. In these networks they mentor and guide one another, however by tapping into this small and male dominated webs the options are restricting in that they limit the perception on what a board member should look like.

If a vacancy was to arise, the existing networks can not provide a suitable female candidate as almost none are present, therefore the narrative that is spread is that qualified women do not exist. With the introduction of quotas, hiring boards would have to look past the candidates who have previous CEO experience and instead search for competent candidates with transferable skill sets. Instead of shuffling businessmen from one company to another, companies must acknowledge that there is a younger, educated and motivated labour force from which they can tap managerial talent.

However the premise of mandatory quotas is a double edged sword. Women admitted to boards in order to fulfil them are unlikely to be seen as equals whose presence is merited, they will be seen as the ‘token’ or simply a statistic. However with two thirds of companies with minimal female presence, we cannot rule out tokenism and we must be able to move beyond it.

While advancements have been made in ensuring more African girls and women attain education which enables them entry into corporate employment, they tend to be clustered at the lowest levels. These women are underemployed and undervalued. When promoted to middle management, they are few in number and those in upper management are almost invisible.

Raising gender balance isn’t about forcibly placing a woman director on the board, especially if there are not enough women in middle management. If steps are not taken to ensure diversity throughout all levels of management, the crisis will persist. Companies need to work on building up their pipeline of women talent in lower and middle management in order to ensure this continues all the way to the top.

However, the rise to the top by women is marred by several factors. They have to deal with several barriers such as:-

  • The wage gap and inequity in pay
  • The challenge of integrating work with family responsibilities:- Companies are reluctant to hire women for demanding jobs because of this. There are still debates about the necessity of maternity leave, while daycares are ridiculously expensive.
  • Continuing discriminatory practices in the workplace such as poor work facilities for breastfeeding mothers.

Another factor that hinders gender diversity is gender stereotypes. Women are usually described as warm, emotional, caring, sensitive e.t.c., which in general are positive traits to aspire to, but in a male-dominated workplace, these can be seen as unnecessary or even negative.  When searching for a candidate, hiring boards usually search for certain keywords and descriptors such as competent, assertive, decisive, rational and objective. These traits can occur in any gender, however, they are usually associated with men.

For the women who manage to succeed in a job traditionally reserved for men, they are assumed to be the opposite of their descriptive traits because they are seen to be violating gender stereotypes which are frowned upon in a patriarchal society. Instead of being ‘warm’ and ‘compassionate’ they are seen as rude, harsh and lacking compassion. Most are not even seen to have gotten there by merit, instead, they are accused of sleeping their way to the top. Their contributions are not valued because of this, which leads to poor morale.

Gender differences are treated as distinct and unchangeable when in reality they vary across the board. Unfortunately, this is a problem deeply engrained in society. It is difficult to point out gender discrimination and even harder to change. Because these perceptions take time to hold, this is a message that should be repeated constantly.

Studies have shown that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance on average as compared to those with the lowest representation of women board directors. Greater diversity produces robust debate which leads to better decision making. If well managed, diversity produces better results. Diversifying boards with women can lead to more independence, innovation and good governance and ultimately maximise company performance.

Gender equality is achieved when people are able to access and enjoy the same rewards, resources and opportunities regardless of whether they are a woman or a man. Despite massive shifts in societal perceptions due to activism and numerous campaigns lobbying for women’s rights, women are still being shunned in the business world and the workplace as a whole. Women continue to earn less than men, are less likely to advance their careers as far as men, and are more likely to spend their final years in poverty.

Achieving gender equality is important for workplaces not only because it is ‘fair’ and ‘the right thing to do’, it is also vitally important to the bottom line of a business and the productivity of our continent as a whole.

Facebook Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts on this article

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.