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Transforming the leadership trajectory for women in tech

Women leaders are switching jobs at rates far higher than their male counterparts as they demand more from their employers and show they’re willing to go elsewhere to get it. That trend is substantiated by recent research from McKinsey. Given this reality – and the business world’s drive to create more diverse and inclusive leadership teams – the pressure is now on companies to hold on to the few women leaders they already have.

But there’s a lot of work to be done. Despite a strong focus by organizations to deliver a more inclusive workplace, change is not happening as quickly or as widely as it should, says Cindy Sieberts, country director for South Africa for digital payments gateway MFS Africa. A good illustration of how slow the rate of change is can be found in executive representation at companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), Africa’s largest stock exchange. According to a 2022 analysis by PWC, just 15% of the JSE executive population was women. While that represented a slight improvement from 2021, when women made up 13% of corporate executives, it will take another 17 years for executive parity at the current rate of improvement.  

Cindy Sieberts, MFS Africa

Cindy Sieberts, MFS Africa

MFS Africa

The legacy of female versus male roles is still informed by a conscious or unconscious bias in terms of capabilities and skills, says Lytania Johnson, CEO of First National Bank’s personal segment. In addition, there are perceptions that because women have more responsibility at home, they have less disposable time and energy to dedicate to more complex roles. This can hinder their ability to take on leadership positions because they’re perceived to come with additional responsibilities.

Akhona Qengqe, GM of KFC Africa, agrees. Traditionally, when organizations look to promote one of their team members to a position that requires them to travel, for example, the fact that a woman has children can work against her, because people assume a married woman with children may not be able to travel as frequently as they might need to. This kind of culture inadvertently discourages or excludes women from even being considered for leadership roles without even taking their competencies and skills into account. “Today, I believe the biggest barrier, and contributor, to the low numbers of women in corporate leadership is a lack of opportunity,” says Qengqe.

Akhona Qengqe, KFC Africa

Akhona Qengqe, KFC Africa

KFC Africa

But there are also internal factors holding women back as well, acknowledges Marlene Pappas, COO at KPMG South Africa. Unfortunately, many young women are still socialized to behave a certain way and think they can and can’t do specific tasks and activities. This reinforces perceptions around what women are capable of achieving and, therefore, prevent them from applying for leadership roles. To challenge this, those already in leadership positions have a responsibility to encourage others to aspire to break the glass ceiling as well, she says.

Widespread cultural change and mentorship a must

For Johnson, what will significantly improve working environments and boost accessibility for women in the workplace are women-inclusive policies and practices like flexible working arrangements, lactation rooms for returning mothers, pay parity for equal work, networking and leadership development program opportunities, access to projects and teams where they can grow and thrive, and other support mechanisms.

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