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July – December 2020

Research Are women in Africa reaching the top?

Women leaders in business and higher education in Africa: Are they reaching the top?

By Dr Njeri Mwagiru

  • DEC 2020
  • Tags Leadership
15 minutes to read

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Addressing organisational cultures
Organisational culture can perpetuate stereotypes and biases about what women can do, sculpting women’s leadership and roles to fit predefined norms.

Understanding women’s organisational leadership in Africa is complicated, firstly because of a lack of data, and, secondly, due to constraints within organisational environments. This article reflects on challenges facing African women in reaching leadership positions in business and higher education institutions, specifically in South Africa and Kenya.

What are the obstacles they need to overcome? What are the strategies they use to negotiate their organisational contexts?

Limited data and low representation of women leaders in Africa
Not many studies have researched on women in organisational leadership positions in Africa. Also, there notably aren’t that many women in senior and leadership positions on this continent.

The African Development Bank acknowledges a lack of regional information on women in senior positions in African private sectors. Feminist studies also identify a significant gap in African leadership positions filled by women. The same applies to women in higher education, where there is a small number of pipeline candidates entering and rising to leadership positions in academic institutions.

Understanding women’s organisational leadership in Africa is complicated, firstly because of a lack of data, and, secondly, due to constraints within organisational environments.

In South Africa, various researchers refer to the poor representation of women in academic leadership despite some gains. According to Universities South Africa (USAf), women students’ enrolment at universities is higher at 58% compared to 42% for men. Yet, data from the Higher Education Management Information System shows that, in 2016, women occupied only a few senior academic positions at universities.

In the business sector, a 2017 Leadership and Diversity Report by the Kenya Institute of Management looked at women’s representation in 52 listed companies in Kenya. Positively it is projected that gender parity in this East African country’s boardrooms could be achieved by 2030. This based on a 75% increase in women’s representation in corporate leadership from 2012 to 2017. In Africa, Kenya has the highest percentage of women board directors at 19.8%, followed by South Africa at 17.4%. These numbers however remain below the minimum required gender equity percentages of 30%-50% representation.

In Africa, Kenya has the highest percentage of women board directors at 19.8%, followed by South Africa at 17.4%.

In South Africa, despite gains achieved for women, top management positions in organisations are predominantly occupied by men. In 2018, in South Africa’s top 40 companies, one CEO was a woman, while 22% of executives within these companies were women. In 2017, the Business Women’s Association reported that women continue to be underrepresented in executive management and CEO positions. Further, the percentage of women directorships in listed companies on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange decreased by an estimated 10%, indicating a decline in companies in South Africa with gender diverse boards. According to the Business Women’s Association, among JSE-listed companies in 2017, women constituted only 11.8% of board chairpersons, with one in six JSE-listed companies having no women on their boards.

The trend locally and globally is a push towards increased employment and representation of women in business management and higher education. Yet, women mostly fill positions with less power and authority than men. The African Development Bank noted that talent is crucial for advancement and competitive advantage, but “despite the growing number of qualified women in the workforce in all areas, the female talent pool continues to remain underutilised – this is a worldwide phenomenon”.

Organisational constraints to women’s leadership
Achieving gender inequity in organisations has typically focused on numbers which, while important, should not neglect attention to issues that prevent women in leadership from influencing organisational agendas.

In 2018, in South Africa’s top 40 companies, one CEO was a woman …

Commendably, both Kenya and South Africa have constitutional and government mandates for women’s equal representation and opportunity. In South Africa, the Employment Equity Act and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), and in Kenya, Article 27 of the National Constitution provide legislative frameworks for affirmative and equity-based action. Also, in the private sectors in Kenya and South Africa, gender diversity principles are generally integrated as part of good corporate governance.

Examining women’s experiences in organisational leadership in these countries therefore, can contribute to an understanding of the supportive policy frameworks needed for positive outcomes for women in practice.

To explore and understand more about women leaders’ experiences in Kenya and South Africa, interviews were conducted with 104 women in senior positions, representing 60 organisations in the higher education and business sectors in these two countries. The interviews and focus-group discussions took place over a period of four years.

The trend locally and globally is a push towards increased employment and representation of women in business management and higher education. Yet, women mostly fill positions with less power and authority than men.

The interview questions covered, among others, leadership experiences (referring to barriers and enablers), and the organisational factors impacting their decision making as a key responsibility and indicator of effective leadership. Questions were also asked about the role of leaders in promoting greater gender equity in senior positions.

These interviews were then scrutinised to look for the voice of the individual (I), the voice of relationships (we), and a contextual reading (culture, norms and expectations). In analysing the data, the research examined gender-based discrimination experienced by these women, as well as the strategies they used to navigate challenging work environments.

What did the study find?
Shared experiences among women in organisational leadership positions indicate that, with respect to equal access to opportunities and agency in professional environments, these women’s contributions are hampered by traditional gender-typing, informal exclusive groupings within organisations, competitive and ‘status quo’ cultures, and hierarchical structures.

Reasons for organisational resistance to change also include long board tenure which can lead to groupthink and a dismissal of alternative ideas.

  • Culturally restrictive environments: The women in this study cited entrenched traditional attitudes to women in the workplace as a challenge. Discriminatory cultural mind-sets can limit the distribution of decision-making power and side-line women in leadership.
  • Exclusive networks: Research respondents said that decision-making in their organisations was challenging. Traditional views of gender roles persisted, with male voices largely privileged, and the potential for women leaders to contribute to decision-making generally overlooked. Sociocultural prejudices limited women’s leadership functions.
  • Keeping the status quo: In an ever-changing world, it is important to question the status quo and to welcome diverse perspectives. Not fully including women can limit how organisations respond to unpredictable environments. Reasons for organisational resistance to change also include long board tenure which can lead to groupthink and a dismissal of alternative ideas.
  • Organisational hierarchies: Research respondents in both the business and higher education sectors referred to male-oriented social clubs and activities from which women are excluded (by rules) or discouraged from participating in (by intimation). Networks in organisational culture can indeed marginalise women.
  • Not taking gender-specific needs into account: The integration of family, work and social roles can be challenging for women leaders. Here, organisations can help to support women’s gender-specific needs – such as flexible working arrangements and parenting support structures.

Continued advocacy is necessary to push back against gender inequity, and to insist on fair and equal opportunities for women.

What are the organisational facilitators?
Continued advocacy is necessary to push back against gender inequity, and to insist on fair and equal opportunities for women. According to the respondents, the following steps can help to support senior-level women:

  • Contribute to data collection: Improve data on the status of women in organisational leadership, as this can help with the design of appropriate measures and policies.
  • Facilitate policy implementation: Help to ensure compliance with policies and mandates. This includes setting gender equity and diversity targets, ensuring non-discriminatory recruitment and promotion practices, allowing flexible work arrangements, offering extended maternity and paternity leave, enforcing sexual harassment disciplinary processes, and ensuring gender-equal remuneration.
  • Adhere to best practice: Recommendations to promote women’s leadership can draw on best practice from various fields.
  • Leverage training, networking and mentorship support: This can include mentorship and sponsors, coaching, career guidance, formal networking programmes, and diversity awareness training.

Forward planning and preparedness helps to anticipate risks and make use of opportunities.

Enablers and obstacles on women’s leadership path
When the women in this study were asked to identify the strategies that supported them the most on their career paths, they mentioned the following:

  • Performative flexibility: It is advantageous for women to align their behaviour in the workplace and in leadership roles in order to meet personal and professional objectives.
  • Planning ahead: Forward planning and preparedness helps to anticipate risks and make use of opportunities.
  • An adaptive leadership style: It is important to apply the leadership style most suitable to the situation in order to motivate staff and achieve objectives.
  • Strategic communication: They highlighted the ability to communicate effectively as crucial for organisational and team leadership.
  • Information: Access to information was seen as important to remain relevant and enhance competencies.

This study has shown that growing numbers of women in leadership positions do not necessarily translate into women having more agency in organisations.

Harnessing women’s talent for Africa’s future
This study has shown that growing numbers of women in leadership positions do not necessarily translate into women having more agency in organisations. More women in leadership roles does not correlate with increased participation in decision-making processes.

This calls for a stronger focus on policy support, mentorship, peer networking and flexible work environments. Learning from best practice and adapting organisational structures and cultures will also help to attain gender parity in leadership.

Ongoing advocacy is needed to create organisational environments that allow for women’s increased participation, contributions and influence. The meaningful inclusion and recognition of women’s talent can contribute to effective leadership in Africa and beyond.

The meaningful inclusion and recognition of women’s talent can contribute to effective leadership in Africa and beyond.

  • See the journal article here: Mwagiru, N. (2019). Women’s leadership in business and higher education: A focus on organisational experiences in South Africa and Kenya. Agenda, 33(1), 117-128. DOI: 10.1080/10130950.2019.1600374
  • Dr Mwagiru is a Senior Futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at Stellenbosch University.

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