Supporting women’s rise in corporate South Africa

31 Aug 2022

Female representation at leadership level is more important than ever, and targeted interventions are needed to move the dial

For more than a decade, we have helped to raise awareness about the importance and value of female representation in senior management and executive positions. As the focus on the gender pay gap has increased in recent years, we have emphasised that an important step towards resolving this issue is equal gender representation among senior positions. However, our latest research shows that despite more attention on these matters than ever before, progress remains slow.

By now, we are all familiar with the setbacks COVID-19 posed to the equality agenda, but with COVID-19 entering endemic status, we feel it is no longer appropriate to defend a lack of progress on this basis. In fact, perhaps in the context of what is going on internationally, the drive to ensure appropriate representation of females in leadership positions (both in the corporate and public sector) should be more urgent than ever before.

Internationally, we are seeing that women’s rights are threatened, and equal representation in the most influential positions is one of the key methods to ensure that women’s voices are heard and their rights protected. 

We’ve also highlighted a link between the presence of women in leadership roles and the increased focus on environmental, social and governance issues. Our research indicates that female directors are 60% more likely to see the link between ESG and strategy and 80% more likely to link issues like climate change with company strategy. Clearly, getting the gender balance right at the leadership level is key to achieving a sustainable future.

Women are still underrepresented at executive level in JSE-listed companies

Only seven of the JSE Top 100 companies are led by female CEOs, and the representation of female CEOs and CFOs across all JSE-listed companies is 8% and 22% respectively (marginally better than 5% and 17% last year). Over the entire executive population of all JSE-listed companies, only 15% is female (13% last year).

With progress as slow as this, it appears that anything like equal gender representation at executive levels remains a significant challenge. We know that the kind of exceptional change which is needed will not happen overnight. Attrition (whether natural or accelerated) can function as an opportunity to deliver this exceptional change, and to show progress, the recruitment of new executive hires must prioritise gender balance. 

To better understand whether female representation is being appropriately prioritised at this level, we assessed the percentage of women at JSE-listed companies who were hired into vacant executive (or other senior) roles in the last few years, contrasted to male appointments. Our research showed that across the JSE, there were 208 new appointments into executive positions from January 2020 till June 2022. Of these, 25% were female. In the JSE Top 100, over the same period, 26% of new executive appointments were female and in the JSE Top 40, 30% were female. 

Given the widespread, global challenge of finding female executive talent, as well as the unique circumstances present in South Africa, it is tempting to suggest that the suitable candidate pool is simply lacking. But this cannot be where the conversation ends. 

With appointments of females into vacant roles being one of the key areas where change can be accelerated, every effort must be made to ensure that effective succession planning focused on grooming appropriate female candidates is in place. When analysing where Top 100 companies were successful in appointing females, we found that of the 21 females who were appointed into executive roles in the period analysed, 60% were internal appointments. 

Recruiting female executives from within the organisation has benefits beyond improving gender representation: the inbuilt organisational knowledge which the candidate already has, the ‘known quantities’ of salary and benefits expectations, and the hiring and on-boarding process are all easier and faster. Hiring internally can also foster loyalty and engagement among the wider employee group — key wins in the era of the ‘great resignation’. 

While this is great for the company, the ‘cost savings’ associated with onboarding an internal executive appointment could contribute to the pervasive gender pay gap (which for large-cap JSE-listed companies generally hovers around 30%). External hires are renowned to trade at a premium, due to increased negotiating power and the need to pay replacement or sign-on awards among other factors.

The reality is often that, given the difficulty of finding appropriate candidates in the external talent market who have the requisite experience, executive recruitment teams may not have the ‘luxury’ to choose from a large pool of candidates. Gender considerations and even pay considerations become secondary to short-term goals like the preservation of shareholder value and organisational stability. 

The other uncomfortable truth is that representing certain internal executive appointments as success stories may indicate a false sense of progress, as some senior females are ‘already in the system,’ moving between executive roles within the organisation. Where the internal pipeline is lacking, women who have successfully ‘made it’ in other companies become targets for poaching, particularly in light of the need to meet the time-bound minimum percentage targets (most often of between 35% - 50%) for female representation in management positions which many JSE-listed companies have adopted and publicly committed to. 

Looking forward: Key ways to drive change 

Despite these and other challenges, it is important to take advantage of opportunities to move the dial. Considering the challenges associated with external talent pools, the development of capable internal candidates through effective succession planning is vital and can improve the retention of these individuals. It is our view that succession planning efforts can be more robust, more specific and better documented, and should be underpinned by policies that support the kind of cultural change required for success. Succession planning should start early and address any identified ancillary hurdles to the progression and retention of women within the organisation. 


Contact us

 Rianté Padayachee

Rianté Padayachee

Media and Communications Specialist, PwC South Africa

Tel: +27 (0) 11 797 5727

Verena Koobair

Verena Koobair

Integrated Content Lead, PwC South Africa

Tel: +27 (0) 11 797 4873

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