Boys’ club: Boards choose leaders who look like them, the Jack Hammer Executive Report notes. Leaders choose adjutants who look like them. Picture: 123RF/ EDHAR YURALAITS
Boys’ club: Boards choose leaders who look like them, the Jack Hammer Executive Report notes. Leaders choose adjutants who look like them. Picture: 123RF/ EDHAR YURALAITS

A recent report for the British government has revealed that the number of all-male FTSE 350 company boards fell from 152 in 2011 to 10 in 2017, but nonetheless British boardrooms remain overwhelmingly a playground for males.

Despite the government’s call for one-third of FTSE company leaderships to be filled by women by 2020, British company chairmen and CEOs were reported as giving a host of reasons for the slow progress.

These included the suggestion that women don’t fit comfortably into the board environment; that there weren’t enough women with the right credentials and experience to sit on a board; and anyway the issues covered by boards are "extremely complex".

Other excuses were that shareholders aren’t worried about the make-up of boards; some board members don’t want women colleagues; all the "good women" have been snapped up; and some boards had already appointed a woman and that was deemed enough.

And some said board chairmen were eager to appoint a woman, but unfortunately there weren’t any vacancies just yet; and there is a need to build up the pipeline from the bottom because there just aren’t enough senior women at the moment.

Substitute the word "black" for "women" and transplant the list to SA and it should all sound more than a little familiar.

Just as there has been an increase (albeit inadequate) in the number of women in the higher ranks of the corporate world in Britain, there has been an increase in the number of blacks in top positions in SA’s top companies.

The Trailblazers Report in 2012 indicated that the number of JSE-listed black directorships increased from 15 in 1992 to 1,046 in 2012. More recently, the Jack Hammer Executive Report indicated that the proportion of black executives in SA’s top 40 companies (by market capitalisation in 2015) amounted to 15%. Progress yes, in absolute terms, but scarcely enough — despite the demands made on companies by black economic empowerment strategies.

In any case, as one survey after another indicates, the majority of blacks on boards hold nonexecutive rather than executive positions, suggesting their relative lack of influence in decision-making.

Local corporates will argue that the situation they face in appointing "demographically representative" boards is significantly different from that facing companies in Britain.

Key factors that will be regularly cited include the lack of highly educated and professionally trained blacks because of the overall poverty of the educational system; the preference many blacks have for public rather than private employment; the intense competition among top companies for a relatively small pool of the most suitably qualified blacks; and the lack of black trainees in the pipeline.

It’s nothing new to suggest that the top echelons of corporate power are run by narrowly circumscribed white male networks who feel comfortable with each other and enjoy chewing the fat at the golf club and deploring the latest gaffes by the Springboks.

Not cited, but probably true, will be reasons such as shareholders (read asset managers) would be distinctly wary of investing in companies "over-burdened" with black directors; and white male directors don’t really want to be outnumbered by black colleagues. Oh yes, and it will probably be reckoned that many issues are "too complex" for black directors.

Whether women in British boardroom, blacks in South African boardrooms (or heaven help us, black women in boardrooms in either country), all this reflects the monochrome culture of the corporate boardroom. As the Jack Hammer Executive Report also noted, boards choose leaders who look, sound and act like them. Leaders choose adjutants who look, sound and act like them.

Risks are rarely taken and "experiments" are left for where the potential damage of a false move will be limited.

It’s nothing new to suggest that the top echelons of corporate power are run by narrowly circumscribed white male networks who feel comfortable with each other and enjoy chewing the fat at the golf club and deploring the latest gaffes by the Springboks.

Admission to others is not barred but it is discretionary, and if you want in, it’s wise not to be too different. Blacks will say you have got to act white; women may say it’s best to be as male and as unfeminine as one can be (and for goodness sake don’t get pregnant).

There might well be a case for saying that the male exclusiveness (and the whiteness) of British boardrooms is more reprehensible than the white domination of South African boardrooms. After all, Britain has been at the business of industrialisation for centuries, and it’s a well-established fact that women and girls are now performing better than men and boys at school and university.

While there might be many "reasons" why relatively few women make it into the boardroom, there is no excuse. It’s downright misogyny.

In contrast, corporations in SA can, with some justification, cite the burden of the country’s atrocious history (although they had quite a hand in it); the manner in which black upward mobility has been blocked by lousy education and the far-reaching extent of segregation, which has limited interracial mixing; and the lopsided nature of the post-apartheid political economy, which has revolved around black political power versus white economic power.

It’s obvious that the record of South African companies is nowhere near good enough.

Nor can the ANC duck the blame. While it regularly deplores the slow state of transformation, it bears a heavy responsibility for why this is so. Reasons range from its mismanagement of education to its having been party to enormous theft by public employees of public resources, all of which encourage the mantra that blacks are not to be trusted anywhere near the money.

However the lack of progress is explained away, it’s obvious that the record of South African companies is nowhere near good enough. It’s not necessarily all their fault, but they nevertheless need to own up to a dismal state of commitment.

The irony is that there is a mass of literature (doubtless propagated in all of SA’s business schools) that diversity is good for the corporate bottom line. It’s useful to compare 10 reasons why companies should embrace diversity as listed in Forbes magazine with the 10 reasons listed above why British corporates manage to avoid recruiting women.

Forbes contributor Mike Myatt, chairman of N2Growth, says diversity reflects the real world — something every company should be sensitive to. Healthy debate can lead to better decisions and divergent backgrounds mean tackling the same idea in differing ways.

Wider variety

He says great ideas come from the disruption of the status quo; most companies’ clients and customers are diverse and it can make a company knowledgeable and sensitive to a wider variety of groups.

Myatt says counsel from a variety of authorities is sensible; setting an example at the top will hopefully have a trickle-down effect within an organisation; and improved reputation and brand and a variety of backgrounds can make a company more adaptable to its environment that is ever changing.

SA’s corporate chairmen and CEOs spout all this stuff in public, but the country is still awaiting the implementation. While waiting, it’s probably wise to avoid being a black woman.

• Southall is emeritus professor of sociology at Wits University.