Gender transformation in senior leadership: change the brief, get results

When looking for women to join your leadership team, there are dynamics that should be accounted for.

By Tracy Dawson, Partner: Jack Hammer Africa.

Gender transformation in senior leadership roles is a top priority for most serious and socially conscious companies across South Africa and the rest of Africa. Despite this, progress is occurring at glacial pace, with only an occasional uptick in transformation stats. And even then, it’s almost negligible.

So what is going on, given the strong commitment on the one hand, yet the ongoing falling short of the mark on the other?

To answer this question, hiring managers might want to have a look at their latest briefing document submitted to the search company they entrusted with this important task: of landing someone who is qualified, boasts a great track record, will be a great fit AND also happens to be female.

Specifically when hiring outside of South Africa, global multinationals should keep in mind that the continent is home to a huge diversity of culture, and there’s no skirting around the fact that it is to a great extent patriarchal in nature. When you are looking for women to join your leadership team, there are dynamics that should be accounted for, because it is very easy to build structural barriers to diversity into your hiring process, particularly in smaller and emerging markets.

For instance, when specifying requirements for specific academic qualifications combined with numbers of years of experience – would that even be a possibility for someone in that specific market given that the degree may only have become a study option in recent years, or may only have become accessible for study by women in the past decade?

P&L accountability track record is another issue. Data shows that women are not given the opportunity to run P&L to the extent men are. When a key requirement for a leadership role is, for example, prior management of a $100 million balance sheet, this will certainly disproportionately exclude many women.

Navigate structural inequalities

It is not often that these factors are particularly relevant in developed markets, which is why global companies should be sure to approach their transformation agendas robustly, but with local insight, sensitivity and support if necessary. The competitive edge for companies is about who has the best people. But in order to land the best, make sure you receive the best advice on how to navigate structural inequalities and get to know your market.

Moving closer to home in South Africa, gender transformation trends aren’t shooting the lights out either, but are perhaps more easily remediable.

For hiring managers searching for top female leaders (or any top talent, for that matter), the job brief will be the first stop.

Firstly, check the date on the original job description – if it’s outlived the last two incumbents with only minor adjustments – it objectively requires a review.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  1. Are you clinging to a traditional leadership framework that is outdated?
  2. Are you placing the emphasis on qualifications at the cost of recognising soft skills and taking into account track record?
  3. Are you throwing too many of your eggs in the psychometric assessment basket?
  4. Are you harnessing the power of multiple data points in hiring decisions?
  5. Does your transformation vision arise from an understanding of how diversity helps a company grow and think differently, or is it a box ticking exercise?

Gender transformation in South Africa and the rest of Africa is still a long way from where it needs to be, and the best place to start making changes in your company, is by looking at what you’ve been asking for so far, and then assessing if the list of requirements itself is leading to the lack of results.

The good news

On the good news side, there is one sector that is defying the prevailing gender transformation trends across the continent – the social impact sector.

Companies are looking for, finding and landing exceptional mid-to-senior level leaders to take them into the future post-pandemic. We are seeing a distinct increase in companies in the social impact sector seeking these types of leaders, and specifically asking for women when they compile their candidate briefs.

Over the past two years, 63 percent of our appointments in the social impact sector have been women.

This is significant, as it is the only sector where senior female leadership appointments outweigh that of men, and indeed far more than the corporate equivalent.

It would appear that the social impact sector, by virtue of its core business imperative, is holding firm on a diversity agenda in contrast to other sectors. This is no accident – transformation is an entirely intentional and deliberate strategy, and needs to be kept on the table, because emerging female leaders are challenging cultural and societal norms and conventions, and are not only advocating for the under-served women on the continent, but also serving as positive role models to millions of young Africans.