The Era of Women has come

This is an era in which the demand for women board members greatly exceeds supply. The world economy is faced with vastly different challenges then those which existed 20 years ago. Globally companies are restructuring their boards of directors to mirror the gender and racial diversity of their customers, employees and stakeholders. As one of the responsibilities of the boards of directors is to develop business strategy for the long-term sustainability of the company, it is important that their profile reflects the diverse realities of markets in which they operate or would like to in the future. Diversity managed correctly can promote creative tension and a culture of open dissent in the boardroom. It helps to have some directors who have a long-term view of the business and a deep understanding of the company history, and others who bring fresh insight and new perspectives.

One way of addressing the board composition and thus its effectiveness is through gender diversity. The traditional pool of male directors, who are mainly CEOs is not adequate to meet the need for independent, nonexecutive board members recommended by King 3 and the new Companies Act. With the promulgation of the new Companies Act that contemplates the creation of a number of board committees with specialised focus areas and to which authority may be delegated by the board, there is an opportunity to have more women on boards of directors. In the context of transformation in South Africa, as well as the skills shortage in leadership positions, it is important for companies to actively support the advancement of women. Despite the growing numbers of educated women entering the workforce, their increasing buying power and influence, women continue to hold only a small proportion of leadership positions in business.

Women are not a mass, but are unique individuals who bring different talents and value to boards based on their own experiences and career history, which are not identical by virtue of them being women. Diversity is a form of individualism, unique characteristics, beliefs and values. It is the mix of gender, age, disabilities, cultures, ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles that characterise the people. Stereotypes can limit women’s opportunities for advancement into top leadership positions. A stereotype requires that the exaggerated beliefs about a group be sustained by selective perception and/ or selective forgetting of facts and experiences inconsistent with the stereotype. Stereotypes of women include widely held misconceptions such as: women only care about the soft issues or women do not have the financial or strategic acumen needed at the board level. Stereotyping negates people’s individuality and limits their potential. Stereotypes of women often portray them as lacking the very qualities commonly associated with effective leadership. If society including business valued diversity, then women should be allowed to be themselves, to give valuable, but different contributions alongside men, given equal weight and legitimacy. The path to the board still requires women to overcome environmental challenges and obstacles. These obstacles are not easy, but not formidable for the women that do succeed.

The presence of women directors does not guarantee diversity of thinking, yet it is often the most overt measure there is when the proxy for diversity is women. Having a visibly diverse board signals that the organisation takes diversity seriously and that these different perspectives and viewpoints are given a voice at the top. In order to overcome the environmental obstacles such as the glass ceiling phenomenon, the women who have a personal drive are attractive in terms of their accomplishments and career history to being approached for board positions. The challenge is also how the women turn the situation from a negative and a token position to one wherein she adds value and becomes a valued member of the board. Women’s organisations need be more vigilant in showcasing its membership, not just the usual suspects, to the rest of its membership and corporates. More women need to be promoted and given podiums instead of fixating on the few over an extended period of time. More capable women need to stand out from the masses and acquire reputations as experts in various disciplines that add value to business strategy.


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