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21 January 2021

Breaking the grip of the boys’ club

This article, by Tracey Davies, was first published in the Financial Mail on 21 January 2021.

Institutions such as the International Labour Organisation and the World Bank warn of the outsize impact Covid-19 has had on women.

Women make up 39% of employed people globally but are estimated to account for 54% of job losses. They are more likely to work in hard-hit industries such as hospitality, and bear a disproportionate burden because of school and office closure disruptions.

In SA, researchers estimate women made up 2-million of the 3-million net jobs lost between the start of the lockdown and mid-July. Most were in manual and domestic labour, where employment is precarious at the best of times.

In this context, it might seem insensitive to talk about the state of female representation on corporate boards. But, as with the Covid-19 fallout, this also illustrates how far we still are from gender equality.

“Status of Gender on JSE-Listed Boards 2019”, a 2020 report by the local chapter of the 30% Club, provides a fascinating glimpse into corporate SA’s endless search for what it seems to view as that rarest of animals: the competent woman.

The 30% Club, founded in 2010 in the UK, has 16 regional and country chapters. Its mission is to achieve at least 30% women representation “on all boards and C-suites globally” by 2020. The 30% target was chosen — despite women accounting for 50% of the population — because the campaign “identified research suggesting that 30% represents a critical mass from which point minority groups can impact boardroom dynamics”.

By 2020, only three chapters had reached the target. The local chapter’s report shows 24% of board members in SA are women: they make up 13% of executive directors and 28.8% of nonexecutives.

The report assessed the gender composition of the boards of 219 JSE-listed companies. It claims to answer questions such as “Why are there not more women on the boards of listed companies?” and (my favourite) “Are there enough women of the right calibre to fill board positions as they arise?”

The report is thin on analysis and steeped in language from the 1950s — as if we must still make the case for women’s participation in the economy. Its launch in late October was led by 30% Club Southern Africa’s steering committee chair, Malcolm Larsen. That a report on gender equality in SA was launched by a British man lent the proceedings an incongruous air.

Larsen opened by quoting some “amusing” comments from FTSE 100 chairmen, including “Most women don’t want the hassle or pressure of sitting on a board” and “We have one woman on the board already, so it’s somebody else’s turn” (the 30% Club calls this kind of company the “one and done”).

Of the JSE companies assessed, 17 (7.7%) have achieved gender parity or better, and 41 (18.7%) would do so by replacing one male board member with a woman. Voluntary targets have been set by 104 companies, and 28 (12.8%) have no women board members.

There are 50 JSE-listed companies in the “one and done” category, but they are not named because the 30% Club is “sure that a number of them are merely on their journey and will not stay on one for a long time”.

Time for a turnaround

Of course there are enough “women of the right calibre”. A 2020 paper by the University of Stellenbosch Business School provides the statistics to support its assertion that “there is a vast, untapped pool of qualified and talented women who could add value to a board”.

But entrenched directors know how to deal with this: “experience over qualifications”. The report says boards “only recruit individuals who are highly experienced and seasoned”. So potential board members (and many women) are excluded on the basis of a lack of experience — which they cannot gain because of this exclusion.

Interestingly, the public sector has achieved far more on gender equality than the private sector. And while business condemns cadre deployment in the government, the private sector has its own version of this progress-arresting tactic: the 30% Club report confirms “it is still common practice that board members will nominate or recommend individuals known to them based on their own networks”.

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