South African businesses and corporates have very appropriately committed themselves to better levels of female representation and participation in leadership positions. However, achieving this goal will require more than just policies and quotas.
Statistics show that only 28% of companies listed on the JSE40 have women represented at board level. In 2018, only one of the top 40 companies in South Africa, had a female CEO, while a mere 22% of executives within these companies were women. Women are not only poorly represented at the highest level. Women make up 50,7% of the total population but only contribute to 45.5% of the employed workforce.
The impact of Covid-19 had a disastrous effect on women in the workplace. Estimates suggest Covid-19 destroyed a decade’s worth of employment growth in just four months. According to NIDS-CRAM data, of the three million jobs lost in Q1 and Q2 of 2020, two million were held by women.
A local organisation that works in tertiary education student financing believes that education – and more importantly, access to education, significantly contributes to addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the South African workforce.
Over the past five years, Feenix has raised over R123 million for students on its platform, with 57% of the funding allocated to the education of female students, according to a report released by them earlier this year.
Leana de Beer, CEO of Feenix, celebrates and commends the strides made by organisations so far but believes there are always opportunities for greater inclusivity. She continued by explaining, “We can do more to tap into the eagerness of leaders and organisations to create better representation. A real commitment to diversity and equity, not only strives for justice but celebrates and understands the impact of diverse participation on creativity and innovation in the workplace.”
De Beer recommended the consideration of several steps in building sustainable differences in the workplace. “The first step is ensuring women, and other underrepresented groups, feel welcomed, supported, and safe in the workplace. This requires a commitment of organisational wide resources and concrete actions that reflect these sentiments.”
Committing to the upskilling and training of women’s talent is one such action. It is important to ensure young female graduates and entrants are equipped with the necessary skills to succeed. Access to education and training has the ability to propel and nurture young talent.
Furthermore, many young people are racking up high levels of debt in order to get a university degree. Supporting education efforts should also focus on relieving this financial burden by contributing toward student fees, allowing them to graduate debt-free, and entering the workforce with enthusiasm and optimism.
Mentorship programmes are also a great tool for supporting DEI objectives. Access to committed mentors has shown to increase young people’s self-awareness, self-belief, job satisfaction and social capital.
De Beer explains that even just creating a platform for older and more experienced women to share lessons learned with young graduates entering the working world, can play a big role in young people’s understanding of challenges and overcoming of barriers they will face.
“We can always do more to move the needle so that there is equal opportunity for all to partake, learn and thrive. We must not only ensure a seat for women at the boardroom table, but we need to mentor and prepare them so they can start this seat confidently,” ends de Beer.