Vanished! South African women are "disappearing" on the path to senior leadership, despite beginning their career with the same level of aspiration and confidence as men

VANISHED! South African women are “disappearing” on the path to senior leadership, despite beginning their careers with the same level of aspiration and confidence as men

Bain & Company’s South African gender equity report points out areas where organisations fall short on women’s advancement in the workplace and what they can do to address this

Johannesburg – 25 May 2017 – Women in South Africa outnumber men when it comes to university graduates, and they are joining the workforce in greater numbers with a high degree of aspiration and confidence that they can reach senior leadership – on par with their male colleagues. Yet, even though the foundational elements to ensure women succeed are in place, few actually make it to the top. Instead, women seem to be steadily “disappearing” on the path to EXCO.

Bain & Company recently conducted a survey of over 1,000 women and men in the private sector across all levels and industries, and conducted more than 50 one-on-one interviews with individuals in corporate South Africa to understand the current perceptions of gender equality in the country’s workplace and the deterrents to success that women must confront daily to succeed. The findings, detailed in Bain’s latest report, Gender (Dis) parity in South Africa: Addressing the Heart of the Matter, reveal 58% of women compared to 48% of men at the non-management level aspire to reach the C-suite and are equally confident that they can do so.

However, once women reach middle-management, they begin to experience a decrease in confidence and this is where the inhibiting factors start to come in. On average, women at this level are 11 percent less confident than their male counterparts that they can reach the top, likely because they start to experience the day-to-day realities of gender inequality.

Female respondents believe that some organisational processes disproportionately benefit their male colleagues. For example, South African women are 12 percent less likely to consider performance assessments fair versus their male counterparts and almost 30 percent less likely to believe that they have equal opportunities to advance on the same timeline as men. The largest disparities occur at the junior and middle management levels, where men are 46 percent more likely to believe in equal promotion timelines.

About 40 percent of respondents said they have negative experiences at the workplace (such as sexual harassment, lack of respect and exclusion) more than once a quarter. Interestingly, Bain found that these instances had a similar frequency for women and men, but based on interviews, have a more significant effect on women’s advocacy (women recommending their respective organisations to others), desire to stay in the organisation and likelihood to move up the ranks.

“Often, women, particularly in middle-management, feel marginalised, ignored or simply worn down by trying to get their efforts recognised,” said Catalina Fajardo, a Bain partner based in Johannesburg and co-author of the report. “The perception is that promotions for women generally take longer and the loss in confidence is reflected in the decline in advocacy scores by women a few years into their careers.”

This scenario may be exacerbated by the lack of senior level support and mentoring, which Bain has found is essential in helping women reach their full potential. Less than 40 percent of women in non-management, junior- and middle-management positions believe that they possess such support.

Bain’s report also acknowledges that social and cultural pressures can influence women’s career advancement. Only 58% of respondents agree or strongly agree that their communities support equal career opportunities for women and men. In addition, women who said they do not aspire to senior leadership positions are almost three times as likely to say their families (whose support is of greater importance than communities) do not believe in equal career opportunities.

“Our findings suggest that women continue to bear a disproportionately heavy burden when it comes to balancing professional aspirations with deeply embedded societal norms, which continue to dictate that women should be the primary caregivers in the home,” said Fajardo. “As a result, many women feel they are ‘going against the grain,’ when they opt for a career.”

One factor that Bain found has little bearing on women’s career advancement – despite commonly held misconceptions – is personal attributes, such as comfort with risk taking and resilience. According to the research, men and women rate their experience within these categories nearly identically and reasonably high, at an average of 3.8 out of 5.

There is no silver bullet to fix gender equity – it is a complex, highly nuanced challenge for which change and action needs to come at individual, company and societal levels. However, Bain found four calls to action that are applicable to all organisations and can, when effectively implemented, positively affect women’s progression in the workplace:

  • Align as a leadership team around a business case that supports gender equity
  • Strengthen the career path for women at middle management on the path to senior leadership
  • Ensure that checks and balances are in place to identify biases in reporting and processes
  • Apply a zero-tolerance policy and increase awareness of negative experiences

Although South Africa has made significant strides towards gender equality in the workplace, the country still has a long way to go. Because of intersectionality, gender cannot be viewed on its own—a fact that is particularly important in the case of South Africa given its historical context. Gender equity is not solely a matter of chasing targets: Organisations need to set women up for success in order for them to reap the business benefits that diversity can bring.

Through this study, we have uncovered that organisational and societal factors, not personal ones, limit women’s ability to reach the top. That said, everyone has a role to play in changing the status quo, be it in his or her capacity as an individual, as an organisational leader or as a member of society. The time to act is now! 

Editor's note: For media requests or to schedule an interview with Ms Fajardo, please contact Marlynie Moodley at or +27 (0) 60 991 5067


About Bain & Company, Inc.

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