BAT's Candice Watson on the underrepresentation of females in leadership

Candice's doctoral thesis will explore the ongoing lack of females in decision-making positions.

After 18 months specialising in talent at British American Tobacco (BAT), I realised how much I missed being a generalist. Driving the business agenda from a people perspective is a different kettle of fish from specialist roles, which on their own can also be quite critical to business success but invariably are a narrow subset of the overall people strategy.

While I am now back in my element, I valued my deep dive into talent as it gave me a fresh appreciation for why we need to develop our skills. Most importantly, it made me realise where my passion lies – developing female leaders.

It is why I enrolled for my PhD through the University of Cape Town, where I will be focussing my research on understanding the underrepresentation of women in senior management roles within Africa. I will explore the challenges faced by female professional in the context of perpetual cultures of exclusion in the management ranks. 

It has become painfully obvious to me that, as much as we build talent pipelines for the organisations that we are in and have had succession plans for years on end, 95 percent of senior management roles throughout the country are still held by men.

We don't have the right mix of voices around the decision-making tables. Typically, females in senior management tend to be in support services like HR or in legal. They are not in the key driving seats of decision-making in this country, even though women represent half of the total economic workforce.

That's a significant demographic that is not participating in the decisions around how businesses and the economy at large are being run. The consequence of that is that we are missing out on the progress we can make not only as an organisation but as society at large. 

Our daughters and sons must be equal

The female agenda is key because we cannot sustainably build our economy with the majority of voices being muted. We need to create opportunities for women to participate in the economy. We still bear the brunt of being the primary caregivers but the reality is that we are also driving a lot of the consumption in the economy. Our market research has reflected that 50 percent of our consumers are female. But the people making decisions about the products and services were should offer don't understand where we, as women, are coming from.

I am a mother and I have a daughter who believes that she can do anything she puts her mind to. She is about 11 years old now and, as an adult, I am sometimes saddened by the thought that the world is not set up for her to become whomever she wants to be. At the moment, there are still careers that I would advise her against pursuing because of how difficult it would be for her to thrive in those industries. Even if she could succeed, the hardship and emotional distress she would have to encounter in order to flourish is something that is still quite upsetting for me.

Find ways to drive female recruitment

Unfortunately, because of the nature of our industry, we don't typically attract females for operational roles. Sales representatives, for instance, will spend most of their time in the car taking orders and delivering the product. This often happens at odd hours of the day so there is a safetly issue that means men are better suited to those roles. However, we have entire career paths in brand marketing, consumer insights, legal, finance, human resources, research and development. These are all avenues through which a female can join the company and be developed into a leader.

Up until now, we haven't actively driven the recruitment of women for these roles. Obviously, the principles of ensuring that the most capable and qualified candidate must always apply, but I think it's time we give a little extra attention to the female agenda. That is why part of my mandate is to reshape the people agenda for the 10 markets in Southern Africa.

Equality doesn’t mean excluding males

That said, promoting the interest of women does not mean we must suddenly forget about the men. The two are not mutually exclusive. For instance, we are rolling out a programme called ‘Parents at BAT’, which looks at how we can support our employees both pre and post maternity. We didn't call it ‘Mothers at BAT’ because we are cognisant of the fact that times have changed. We give the parent the chance to decide who will be the primary caregiver of their child and they are the ones will be supported by the business. If they need flexibility for the first three to six months after the child’s birth we will give it to them, irrespective of whether they are men or women. 

Inclusivity and diversity mean giving opportunities to all people of all backgrounds. That is why we are reshaping the people agenda for the 10 markets in Southern Africa, where we will be developing leaders from within and ensuring that we have the internal capacity to lead this company into the future. The industry is undergoing rapid evolution and we need to have a diverse mix of people that will be able to navigate that future. And the only way to assess whether we have been effective is if there is somebody within the company that will be ready to take my job within the next two to three years.