Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Twenty years after the promulgation of the Employment Equity Act, transformation — particularly the advancement of women — in the metals and engineering sector is still painfully slow, as indicated by the 18th Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report, “Workforce Profile for Manufacturing by Race and Gender”.

Published in June this year, the report compared 2015, 2016 and 2017 statistics on race and gender, and the picture, in terms of gender diversity, remains particularly discouraging, with a mere 33.8% representation of women at senior management level.

The exclusion of women and their skills in the workplace, especially in senior management positions, is not unique to SA.  Entry into such decision-making positions is replete with well-known barriers. Women have to fight cultural stereotypes, ingrained mindsets and stubborn forms of behaviour to break through into leadership roles and positions.

According to the 2017 Businesswomen’s Association of SA census, the share of JSE-listed companies with female directors decreased from 35.9% in 2015 to 25.6%. This is in spite of  companies with the highest percentage of women on their boards tending to outperform those with lower percentages, in terms of higher returns on sale, a greater return on invested capital, and a higher return on equity.

 The inclusion of a minimum of three women on companies’ boards should be compulsory, especially given that the government has deemed gender equality and women’s empowerment central to its transformation agenda

Clearly, representation of women at the top of leading organisations needs to increase exponentially through, among other initiatives, upskilling the available talent pool at the lower organisational levels. Businesses also need to empower more women not only to step up, occupy leadership positions and be heard, but also to contribute their knowledge, talent and skills to organisatons.

In this regard, I am of the view that the inclusion of a minimum of three women on companies’ boards should be compulsory, especially given th the government has deemed gender equality and women’s empowerment central to its transformation agenda.

For example, access to formal employment for women is facilitated through the Employment Equity Act, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) Act and sector charters through which employers are legally required to work towards more equitable representation based on gender, race and disability. The 2017 report by Women Board Directors of Africa’s top-listed companies highlighted the fact that SA has, since 2005, succeeded in ensuring that at least 30% female directors serve on the boards of state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The 2012 Businesswomen’s Association census recorded 33% female representation on SOE boards, proving the effectiveness of this mandate.

This is meaningful transformation and companies in the private sector should take a leaf out of the SOE book if we are to truly tackle the challenge of gender transformation in the workplace, particularly in the metals and engineering sector. Business, the government and other social partners must not cease to advocate and campaign to provide opportunities that ensure  women get the experience they need to be appointed to top and senior positions, and that they are represented on boards. Training interventions could include work-integrated learning, executive coaching, as well as mentoring and sponsorship programmes, to name but a few.

If transformation does, indeed, make business sense (and I believe it does), then we should also hold the government and business to account as we move towards real and lasting change in the interests of moving SA forward. At the pace at which transformation has taken place so far, will we have to wait another 20 years for equitable representation in the labour market to take effect?

I would hazard a guess that the businesses that are transforming and succeeding are doing so because they have implemented policies and practices based on a genuine conviction about the benefits of gender diversity. Today, being untransformed poses significant reputational risk for any business. Trying to achieve employment equity and B-BBEE targets in the absence of an integrated employment equity and diversity management strategy could be one of the main reasons for the lack of progress.

Finally, imagine if all businesses enabled inclusive and empowering work environments. Most certainly the outcome would be the achievement of effective employment equity and diversity implementation, reflecting more women in higher occupational levels and on boards within the labour market.

Mulholland is the human capital and skills development executive at the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa.