Despite how high they may attempt to soar within their organisations, many women have only succeeded in crushing themselves against the glass ceiling still firmly in place in the workplace.
Irrespective of their education levels, experience or work ethic, there are many women who continue to linger in middle management within the working world, while men experience unrivalled superiority at the top.
This issue is highlighted in the Grant Thornton Women in Business Report, released in March this year, which revealed that globally, women only hold 25% of senior roles, a measly 1% increase from its figure of 24% last year.
Within Africa, that number stands at 29%, slightly higher than last year’s figure of 27%.
South Africa showed a 5% improvement, with the figure going from a low 23% last year to 28% this year.
But according to Statistics South Africa, despite women making up 51% of South Africa’s population, only 44% fill up skilled posts, which include managers or technicians.
This figure has remained the same in the country since 2002.
The issue of women empowerment in the workplace has been touched on numerous times by Facebook chief operating officer and feminist Sheryl Sandberg, author of the book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.
The book – aimed at helping women stand up and take on leadership positions in their workplaces – touches on several gender equity issues, with Sandberg stressing the need for mentorship, advising women on how to build satisfying careers and urging them to also abandon the myth of “having it all”.
In a story which appeared on CNN, Sandberg stressed the need for women to build each other up at work, band together and attempt to eradicate the myth that women are other women’s worst enemies.
“Women often get less credit for their accomplishments and are penalised for promoting their own work,” Sandberg said.
“To mitigate that, women should be mentoring each other every step of the way.
“At the current pace it will take more than a hundred years to reach gender parity in the C-suite.
“We can’t wait that long for change, which is why women have to act now.”
Locally-based chartered accountant and partner at PricewaterhouseCooper Jacqui Mauer says the glass ceiling theory is a challenge in the workplace due to factors that are controllable and some that are not.
According to Mauer, within business there are numerous challenges faced by both men and women.
“I focus on what I can control and work at thinking differently to others and understanding where my strengths lie,” Mauer said.
“I then focus on being the best person for the job regardless of my gender. In the last two years I have seen many woman rise to key positions. They have done this by getting experience, taking opportunities afforded to them and gaining respect and support from colleagues. With time and the traditional workplace changing at such a rapid pace, there are more and more opportunities for women to excel and hold key positions in many industries.
“A positive picture of women emerging in executive roles is taking place in corporate South Africa – albeit slow.”
Bonnie Currin, deputy chairwoman of the East London branch of the Business Woman’s Association and owner of a marketing and recruitment company, said she believes the glass ceiling is being shattered by the new generation entering the workforce “… such as the millennials and Generation Z.
“I think it is an outdated issue that the older generations, that being the silent and baby boomer generations, struggled to adapt from.
“As they still struggle with virtual workstations, flexible working hours, and dare I say technology advancements.
“I believe we will start seeing radical changes in leadership diversity as the gaps are formed through the much-anticipated retirements.”
Mthatha-born property mogul Pam Golding said the change was visible, particularly in the property industry where many women hold senior leadership positions.
Golding – who started Pam Golding Properties in 1976 at a time the residential real estate industry was mainly male-dominated – said she found being a woman in the property industry an advantage as women have a natural empathy.
“This is of great benefit when negotiating sales transactions.
“I have always believed that women can do anything they set their hearts on. I think that women today have endless opportunities to take up the careers of their choice, and advance themselves too.
“More and more women capably manage to juggle the demands and needs of business and family, it is part and parcel of being able multi-taskers.
“Today, the Pam Golding Property group has a 2000-strong workforce with many female executives in senior leadership positions,” she said.
Apart from positions, a gender pay disparity also plays its hand in the workplace.
According to the Women in the Workplace research programme conducted by the University of Johannesburg, the South African gender pay gap is estimated to average between 15% to 17%.
Broken down, this would mean that a South African woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary that he would earn in a year.
Property mogul Xoliswa Tini, of Xoliswa Tini Properties, said the gender pay disparity could be attributed to the fact that men can be more flexible in their working hours as they are generally not home-keepers, many women take up to six months off for maternity leave at any given time, and generally women retire before men do.
She added: “When a woman gets home she has to prepare the evening meal and take care of the children while a man can get home, go straight into his study and carry on working deep into the night.
“Then you look at things like maternity leave … yet no matter how many children a man has, he carries on working throughout.
“Even when one of their children is ill, it’s often the woman who takes time off to look after them.
“Men can travel all over the world at the drop of hat because they know their wives are at home looking after the children. These could be some of the reasons employers may favour men over women.”
Christelle Colman, chief executive officer of Europ Assistance South Africa, agreed, adding that women often felt compelled to act like men in the workplace.
“In my years of experience as a CEO, both of a local business and now of the local arm of a global organisation, I have noticed how the majority of women in senior positions shy away from having the gender discussion.
“In the boardroom and workplace, they feel like they need to be more like men, almost genderless, so that they ‘fit in’. They do not acknowledge that as women we are different, many of us are working mothers … we have different needs,” she said.
As a remedy, Gauteng branch BWA chairwoman Nobuntu Webster said a shift in mindsets is necessary.
“How we depict women in society through media and advertising for instance, how we position the role of women within social constructs – these are some of the ways we can begin to change the way women are viewed in the business world.
“It is also true that there are women who opt out of senior positions in order to focus on their families.
“The business environment needs to be more conducive to raising families – and a number of global companies which have been intentional when it comes to this have scored well when it comes to talent retention.” — zisandan@