African Women in Leadership

Monday, 8th of March was International Women’s Day. This year’s theme was “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”.

I anticipated that most discussions, as every year, would lament under-representation of #women in leadership. The business sector has continued not to fare well since the inception of democracy with the public sector (government and civic society organisations) doing better in gender equity and granting access to women into senior #leadership and management positions.

The irony is not lost to many of us that in the very year that the International Women’s Day theme is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”, Basani Maluleke, is now the former CEO of African Bank having abruptly resigned in January. That is her prerogative. It is the jarring abruptness that indicates a less than cordial parting which has created discomfort than just the fact that she quit. Such a sudden departure by a leader, regardless of race or gender, during a turnaround situation, with no proper succession plan kicking in, which would have been announced orderly at least a year prior, signals that this exit was not cordial. 

In a country where women comprise 51% of the population, but make up only 44.3% of the employed workforce, only 20.7% of directors and 29.4% of executive managers are women. China has the largest share of female CEOs with 12.5%, followed by India at 8.3% and then South Africa with 3.31% of JSE Listed companies. This is unacceptable 27 years into our democracy with a constitution founded on the values of non-racialism, non-sexism, and equality. The response to Basani Maluleke’s departure is not because people think African females are untouchable, beyond criticism and should not face consequences when they perform below par in leadership. However, notwithstanding the adverse impact of the economic recession compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, the turnaround of African Bank in metrices that count seemed to have been on track. The visceral reaction was the recognition that African females have fewer opportunities for development and advancement. The barriers that hinder African women, particularly, from advancing into significant leadership positions, especially in the financial sector, are hurdles that are much greater and more difficult to overcome. Despite African females graduating from universities and being qualified in greater numbers than ever before, they remain disproportionately represented in leadership because of the impenetrable barriers they experience.

Maluleke’s sudden departure represented a reversal of representation by not only females, but African females who are grossly under-represented in critical Profit and Loss (P & L) responsibilities, period. “We just can’t find suitably qualified women’ is the excuse advanced for the lack of women in leadership. The unwritten rule is that individuals who have a track record in being responsible for how resources are allocated, drive financial results, and have experience in leading P & L business units have a greater chance of having a clear path to the C-Suite. In most cases, these are males.

African females, largely, must contend with not just a glass-ceiling, as our white female counterparts, but a concrete ceiling. The concrete ceiling are contrived barriers based on attitudinal or organisational biases that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in organisations into leadership positions. The systemic issue confronting African women is the intersectionality of their identities. African women have the shackles of their race and gender which both have been historically regarded as inferior. Also, the cultural hegemony which results in them being subjected to greater effects of stereotypes, stigma, and discrimination, not just by males of other races, but African males and women as well.  Therefore, when any African female cracks that concrete ceiling, in the shackles of racism, sexism, patriarchy, and cultural hegemony, despite all these constraints, progresses into leadership, it marks a breakthrough that brings tremendous hope to little African girls and women that they are seen and are worthy. 

The narratives on International Women’s Days in March and the South African Women’s Day commemorations in August will continue to lament the lack of women in leadership because the root cause of the snail pace of transformation has not been confronted. It is our thinking about race, gender, and culture from the cradle to the grave by both men and women. As Albert Einstein said, “The world as we have created it, is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”. It is not a coincidence that the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) who think that equality is a critical value to strive for, are leading, globally, in women in leadership representation and have created a world that supports gender equality at home, at work and in public life.


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