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Are women making progress?

May 21 2008 6:28PM
Charlene Smith

ARE women advancing or stuck?
Last week, we learned that a third of South Africa's new dollar millionaires are women but too, that although women dominate in the public sector, they're less likely to be in senior posts.

The 11th World Wealth Report 2007, produced by Merrill Lynch/Capgemini, gave the figures for female dollar millionaires and reaffirmed data from last year that showed the number of dollar millionaires in South Africa (people worth over R7m) increased to 48 586 from less than 25 000 in 2004.

Before we analyse what it takes for a woman to get to the top, let's first look at disturbing comments from Businesswomen's Association president Basetsana Kumalo. The BWA presented research that noted there are more women in government employment than men - 649 718 compared to 536 688 men.

The BWA research showed that men hold 67.8% of senior management positions in government "and get the bulk of the reward". Kumalo astonishingly said she "was encouraged by the public sector which had demonstrated how true gender equality should be achieved".

Reports quote her as saying that although salary levels were still disproportionate, accolades needed to go to the government for believing in South Africa's women and providing them with opportunities for career growth and self development.

She has to be kidding. Women earn less and although they are in greater numbers in the civil service, they have fewer powerful positions - is this "how true gender equality should be achieved"?

No it's not, and it's astonishing that the successful women of the BWA have remained silent. Equality means just that: the same opportunities.

Earlier research by Agenda magazine shows that although more women have employment in the economy in recent times, it is mostly "in work typically associated with low and insecure earnings".

The BWA's obsession with women at board level instead of the more critical issues of how many women are in management and how much women earn compared to male counterparts fails to tell us what jobs women in the public sector are doing.

A survey by the Commission on Gender Equality in 2005 examined 20 employment equity reports submitted to the Department of Labour from companies like De Beers, Coca Cola, Nike, Shoprite Checkers, MTN and Spur. It found that 80% employed women at the semi-skilled level while 20% had women stalling at junior management.

Shoprite Checkers, which has a national award for women leaders, had only 15 women compared to 276 men in top management at that time.

A look at Shoprite Checkers' executive today shows a sea of male faces: 17 out of 17, not a single woman for a group that makes its money out of the purchasing power of women.

De Beers, which in 2005 had no women on its six-member executive team, now has two women.

Yet Catalyst, which surveys the advancement of women in the USA, says, "Simply hiring more women or instituting more gender diversity programmes isn't enough. Companies have shown an increased commitment to diversity, inclusion and the advancement of women in the workplace. Yet the representation of women in leadership remains stagnant."

They say that stereotypes about women hold them back. Take the US presidential race and the snide jokes about Hillary Clinton, her thick ankles, fake tears and stridency have been manifold; neither Barack Obama nor John McCain have had to endure anything like the level of personal insults she has.

In one attitudinal experiment, the "Goldberg paradigm", people are asked to evaluate a speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman.

No matter where in the world this is done, the speech is rated higher if it is believed to be from a man.

Another example from this research is that a man who talks about his successes is highly regarded, a woman who does is considered boastful or arrogant.

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes that "several studies have found that it's a disadvantage for a woman to be physically attractive when applying for a managerial job.

"Beautiful applicants receive lower ratings, apparently because they (are) subconsciously pegged as stereotypically female and therefore unsuited for a job as a boss."

So how did the third of women who are dollar millionaires make it?

Some are BEE beneficiaries; they sit on multiple boards and exercise little power.

But increasingly there is a strong sector in South African society of significant women entrepreneurs Joan Joffe, Wendy Luhabe, Gloria Serobe, Jenna Clifford, Liza van Wyk and others who have had no hand-ups.

They demonstrate what is needed: superior ability, great ideas, passion for the job, hard work and significant self confidence.

What holds women back? Attitude and looking at new situations in old ways.

Your belief that you will be discriminated against because you are black/female/Jewish/Muslim/disabled/a white male, can lead to your own fears realising themselves, not because of the discrimination of others, but because of your own negative self-programming.

And because of that you read situations incorrectly.

But research tells us that women are likely to make more money faster by opening their own business than in relying on men in big corporates to advance them.

But - and this is a very important but - more women will tell you of male mentors, men who believed in them and pushed them, than they will of female mentors within their work environment. They may have them outside their workplace, but very rarely in the same company.

Why? Because women are more likely to sabotage other ambitious women than to help advance them. While men consistently network, by going to lunch and discussing business or talking about deals over the golf course, most women go to lunch and discuss - men, relationships or other women.

Tsogo Sun CEO Jabu Mabuza says: "I have learnt that profits are derived from relationships, and not from transactions." Wise words.

A notable share of the great leaders in history have been women: Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of Egypt, Joan of Arc in France, Empress Wu Zetian of China, Isabella of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria.

But as long as women don't take themselves seriously, don't help other women to advance and think its okay for men to earn more for the same job, our advance will be delayed - to the cost of an economy that needs every capable person to have his or her shoulder to the wheel.