Jackie van Niekerk, COO at Attacq.  Picture: TMG
Jackie van Niekerk, COO at Attacq. Picture: TMG

"There is no ubuntu in capitalism" is a phrase Maki Mothiane, CEO of Sunflower Solar has had to acquaint herself with as a black woman in business.

The words were thrown in her face by the men and women she aspired to have as her professional sponsors when her requests for mentorship were declined.

Mothiane runs a renewable energy company that has exposed her to a ruthless male-dominated industry that had her grasping at straws until she learnt to be self-reliant.

"I remember a situation where I was told, 'I would only be able to mentor you when you give me a certain percentage of ownership in your company'.

"I went there with confidence that woman to woman, help me, here I am as a young woman with passion and skill and I just need guidance because they have walked the road, and I got feedback that said we can't help you because capitalism does not have ubuntu," she said.

Christine Ramon, CFO of AngloGold Ashanti.  Picture: Gallo Images
Christine Ramon, CFO of AngloGold Ashanti. Picture: Gallo Images

Goals remain elusive

It has been decades since anecdotal and scientific evidence had made the case for female participation in top management, yet the goals remain elusive.

For many women the door to the top remains mostly shut in various sectors across the country, even in instances where one of their own has made it there.

Although some, especially women, are quick to dismiss as myth the "Queen-Bee Syndrome" - the theory that women in positions of authority treat female subordinates more critically - it continues to haunt women attempting to make strides in the corridors of power.

However, Christine Ramon, CFO of AngloGold Ashanti and former CFO of Sasol, says she has not experienced the Queen-Bee syndrome in the mining industry, which generally has a small percentage of women in any case. "The few women leaders that I have come across in this industry try to help and encourage other women."

It is known that if companies have women on their boards they perform better compared to their competitors, she says.

At AngloGold Ashanti 33% of its executive and 40% of its board are women.

Mining can be a tough environment for women, she says, which is why the responsibility to open doors for other women should lie with women leaders.

"Women leaders do have high standards as they have had to generally work harder than their male counterparts to be recognised, hence they could be seen as tough in expecting the same from others regardless of whether if they are male or female."

Debate raging for years

Director of business development at the Centre for Creative Leadership Akiva Beebe said although the debate over the need to empower and promote women in business and other professional spaces had been raging for decades, it seemed the lessons learnt had made little impact in the workplace.

In 2017, women occupied only 22% of top management positions across all sectors, according to the Employment Equity Commission. In JSE-listed companies, according to Bain's South African Gender Disparity report, a mere 2.2% of CEOs were female.

"If you look into big businesses today a lot of senior women get undervalued and we see that all the time. You'll have the classic thing of a man versus a woman, who is better skilled. But women are often second-guessed, instead of men and this is the reality we have seen in our studies. Women have to prove themselves more and still get overlooked and undermined, " Beebe said.

But for the women with a seat at the table, pulling the seat out for other women to join the ranks may seem an undue burden.

Cathi Albertyn, professor of constitutional law, human rights and gender and the law at Witwatersrand University, said: "It's everyone's responsibility to ensure gender diversity within the workplace.

"I don't know why there should be a particular burden on women to help women... it ghettoises the issue and it doesn't make equality and a more egalitarian society the responsibility of everyone."

Karabo Morule, the MD of Personal Finance at Old Mutual Emerging Markets, said that although she worked in diversified teams, the industry could do with more diversity and inclusivity.

Another attack on women in executive or top positions is the idea that when a woman is tough with her employees she is seen as bossy or trying too hard, and is given all sorts of labels. Men, on the other hand, tend to get away with not being labelled for the same behaviour.

Difficulties with having children

Challenges were experienced by women in any workspace - despite parenting roles becoming more gender-agnostic, there were still difficulties with women having children, which didn't seem to affect men to the same extent.

"As a woman, being heard in meetings is a constant challenge and actually what has stood out for me is when male colleagues acknowledge when women haven't had their say in meetings, or ensure that women don't get interrupted or that other male colleagues don't repeat ideas women have already provided," Morule said.

She did not think that black women did not speak about gender inequality in the workplace. It was rather a case of "whether anyone is listening".

Jackie van Niekerk, the COO at Attacq, one of three women on the company's executive board, said: "I definitely think that there is space for more women on the board. But like everything in life it's a work in progress in terms of diversifying the board.It is an agenda item on our side."

Van Niekerk said part of driving forward gender parity in the C-Suite was "about looking at internal representation on our boards. It's very much a dual approach and I think that it's how do we bring people up from a smaller role to grow them and groom them into the boardroom".

"It's not so much women bringing women up, it's more the women who are saying that I'm putting my hand up and I'm actually partaking in the conversation and putting my hand up to say that I will lead the conversation," said Van Niekerk.

Properly equipped

Parmi Natesan, an executive at the Centre for Corporate Governance at the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa (IoDSA), said 32% of the institute's members were women at the end of 2016. Yet when asked about the initiatives that IoDSA was taking to promote gender inclusivity, Natesan said the one big challenge of board appointments was that they still tended to be made from within board members' own networks.

"So a conscious effort has to be made to open up the network and look beyond the 'old boys' network' to find aspiring female candidates," Natesan said.

"The other side of the coin is that those women need to be properly equipped to deliver value on boards," she added.

Despite the progress that has been made, Albertyn said: "I do think breaking those powers of hierarchy is incredibly difficult. When we are going to get there I have no clue." Still, "I think we have to see ourselves as constantly making progress."

MahlakoanaT@businesslive.co.zaT shanduP@sundaytimes.co.za MtonganaL@sundaytimes.co.za

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