Prioritise women’s empowerment for an equal future

There’s increasing urgency for businesses to take more action on gender diversity.

By Keletjo Chiloane, senior associate at Mercer South Africa.

Business is increasingly acknowledging that diverse teams bring value to organisations and that companies with high levels of diversity substantially outperform those without.

Yet, despite the proven business case, many black women continue to face significant income inequality compared to their male counterparts. They also suffer from the absence of support systems and limited opportunities to advance into senior leadership positions.

Over the past five years, important factors and forces have emerged and evolved, resulting in increased pressure on organisations for greater progress. This pressure is coming from many directions and few organisations remain untouched in some way.

  • Societal and cultural awareness: Women – and men – in many African countries are becoming much more aware of the need to stand up to violence against women that has been a hallmark of our society for too long. In recent years, we have witnessed protests and marches that call not only for an end to violence but also for greater rights for women overall.

  • Disclosure: Globally, we have seen an increase in voluntary disclosure of gender representation by organisations, notably in the tech sector, and a growing recognition among business leaders that gender parity provides a competitive advantage.

  • Shareholder activism: Activism among shareholders is also on the rise, with resolutions promoting further progress and diversity gaining increasing support.

  • Government actions: More countries, globally, are enacting legislation to enhance gender balance in the workplace. Most African countries have at least one gender quota in place, including 13 countries that hold reserved seats specifically for women in parliament, allowing for diverse perspectives in legislative decision-making.

  • Pay-equity mandates: And, of course, mandates to bridge pervasive pay gaps are high on the agenda globally. Governments have issued new reporting requirements on gender-pay differences. In sub-Saharan Africa, there is growing pressure from advocacy groups for pay transparency.

  • Millennial and Generation Z demands: These generations have experienced greater equality of opportunity and experience in education, sports and more. They expect it in the workplace as well, along with equal pay, and are vocal and active in ensuring they get it.

All these developments come at a time when the fundamental role of business is shifting. It redefines the purpose of a company as serving not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, and society at large – in the creation of shared and sustained value. And the business case has been proved, time and time again.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the unique challenges faced by different populations with women and lower income households hit the hardest. There is therefore increasing urgency for businesses across all industries to take more action on gender diversity.

As we strive to build resilient and agile teams and enterprises, business leaders need access to the best talent – male or female. Put simply, gender diversity is a business imperative for success.

According to Mercer’s When Women Thrive Report, organisations in sub-Saharan Africa are actively engaged and taking steps to change the trajectory – with many scores exceeding those of the global average.

At least 82 percent say pay equity is part of their organisation’s compensation philosophy or strategy (compared to 74 percent globally), 79 percent set formal quantitative Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) goals or targets for DE&I outcomes (compared to only 50 percent globally) and 78 percent of organisations have a team formally responsible for conducting pay equity analysis (compared to 72 percent globally).

In addition, 76 percent of organisations say senior executives are actively involved/engaged in DE&I programmes and initiatives (compared to 66 percent globally).

About 88 percent of respondents in sub-Saharan Africa report that their organisations are already focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is an incredibly positive sign that backs up progress we have seen in a few countries such as Rwanda, South Africa and Ethiopia, where more women are becoming CEOs, joining corporate boards, and being appointed to high-level ministerial positions in government. Yet, this is not reflective of most countries in our region.

As leaders, we know much more must be done to shift Diversity, Equity & Inclusion from a box-ticking exercise to real action, where inclusion permeates the cultures and values of an organisation at its very core.

We also must challenge our traditional concept of the classic family constellation, where childcare responsibilities fall predominantly on women.

This holds many talented women back from remaining in the workforce and advancing into senior positions. We need workplace and government policies that better support childcare needs. Such steps are critical to support women’s ability to be both parents and working professionals.

Gender equality can thrive in organisations that:
1. Use data-driven insights to inform decisions and measure success
2. Set clear, measurable and visible goals that ensure values do not get diluted
3. Provide flexibility and work-life balance
4. Provide opportunities for growth and career development
5. Drive culture and tone from the top, embracing a deep leadership commitment to taking action and engaging employees, as a critical part of the solution.

Organisations say they agree on the imperatives of gender equality, diversity and inclusion, so why is progress so slow? In our opinion, there is insufficient accountability.

We need leaders who not only believe in the business value of diversity, equity and inclusion but also take responsibility for it, ensuring that it flows throughout the organisation – not as a mandate, but as a powerful component of culture.

For those organisations that are ready to make real change, they must start by understanding what women expect from their companies and careers. That means creating a creative and dynamic work environment where leaders support career development and employees are inspired by the work they do.

It means creating an employee experience that is challenging and rewarding, and above all flexible and inclusive.