Female HR leaders need to advocate for more women in the top seats 

HR executives reflect on what's required to create more opportunities for women to become leaders. 

Inequality persists in the global workforce, which still lacks women in top leadership positions. A 2019 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows that only 3.31 percent of chief executives of JSE-listed companies are women resulting in an environment where female CEOs achieve celebrity status but a precious few follow in their footsteps.

Speaking on a panel discussion at HR Indaba 2019, top female HR executives discussed why women are not rising through the management ranks.  They debated why it was that, while most companies have women in junior and middle-management roles, these individuals are not put forward for promotion. More significantly, they don’t put themselves forward for promotion because of a lack of confidence.

Malisha Awunor, HR Director BHBW South Africa was adamant that female HR leaders needed to advocate for women when making internal recruitment decisions. This, she said, need to appen throughout the talent pipeline, from graduate recruitment to junior and senior management roles. 

“As an HR leader, you have to accept accountability for diversity and transformation. You must advocate for the talent in your pipeline. You need to build strong relationships with your cohort of key talent to be able to champion them in the boardroom,” said Malisha.

For Dr Mariheca Otto, Owner of Motto Consulting, women create their own glass ceilings.  Without diminishing the role of sponsors and mentors, Mariheca believes that women don’t fight hard enough for opportunities and that it's the lack of confidence that puts the brakes on their own careers. 

“Men apply for positions that are beyond them. They don’t meet all the requirements but they have the confidence that they’ll be able to figure it out if appointed. Women doubt themselves when applying for roles, even when they meet every requirement,” says Mariheca.  

Giving advice to up-and-coming female HR leaders, Malisha said there was no space for the ‘shrinking violet’ HR manager who is content to push through policies and procedures. To earn a seat at the table, women need to sharpen their commercial awareness by understanding the business and the financials.

"Don’t be boxed into a back office shared services function,” said Malisha. 

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Candice Watson, HR Director for British American Tobacco, echoed this sentiment, saying female HR leaders would not be taken seriously unless they were commercially astute by knowing what and who makes money for the business. 

For Candice, understanding why women don’t achieve their career aspirations, has become a personal quest and the focus of her doctorate studies.

“My daughter became my why. While new generations don’t face the same challenges as older female leaders, I want to understand why the world is not equally set up for my daughter. ” 

She seeks to learn from women who have succeeded on how they accomplished it. This includes the practical steps women take to set up support systems that counter the ‘motherhood penalty’ in the workplace.  

“There is a cost related to being an executive – physically, psychologically and financially. We are not self-made female executives. It takes supportive husbands, nannies and au pairs to achieve your goals. Your choice of life partner can either derail your career or set up you for success.” 

Candice is convinced that there is simply not enough African research on the topic saying that, until there is a body of research based on the African woman’s experience – it is impossible to ascertain whether women opt out of the executive talent poor or if it is the system that pushes them out.