Women blocked by glass ceiling in South African business environment

28 July 2017 Consultancy.co.za 6 min. read

Women looking to reach the boardroom in South Africa face discrimination, harassment and cultural stigmas on the way, a new study into gender disparity has found.

The ‘Gender (Dis)Parity in South Africa: Addressing the heart of the matter’ study from Bain & Company has explored the current conditions faced by women in organisations across South Africa. The report focuses on identifying key trends affecting both male and female workers in the African nation, based on a survey of people across the country's business spectrum.

Women face ascension challenges in the business environment of South Africa, and while they tend to be aspirational and confident about making it to the executive level, Bain & Company’s research finds that few do - 31% of corporates have no women in senior leadership positions. Discrimination at the social level, as well as harassment and implicit barriers continue to hold women back. The findings are part of a global trend, which Big Four firm PwC recently also reported: that women have more obstacles to becoming senior managers than men.

The background statistics regarding the current climate for women in corporate environments across South Africa are relatively stark. A startling 31% of companies in the region have no women at all within their senior leadership, while a report from the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa found that, of board level positions, 22% of board directors are women, with 7% found to be executive directors.

Around 2.2% of the CEOs from companies listed on Johannesburg Stock Exchange were women, while the number increased slightly to 10% across South Africa. Little has changed in the statistics, with the average representation of women in senior leadership positions increasing slightly from 26% in 2004 to 28% in 2017. The global average, according to Grant Thornton's latest study on the matter, found that the role of CEO was held by women in 12% of cases, followed by 9% for the COO.

Company Advocacy

To better understand the relationship that surveyed employees had with their employer, Bain's research set out to measure their employee net promotor score (eNPS). The measure included a range of possible factors that influence whether someone would recommend a company to a friend (8-9), be neutral about a company (7-6), or talk negatively about a company (0-6).

When taking an aggregate result, the research found that women tend to be net detractors when recommending an employer to a female friend, compared to men (-4 and 8 respectively). Particularly junior staff (female -17, male 3) and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (female -16, male 6), had strong negative associations with their employers.

Women's aspirations

Women also tend to be relatively ambitious at start of their careers, with around 58% of women in non-management positions saying that they aspire to reach a top management position, which increases to 68% in junior/management and 82% in senior management. Women are also relatively confident that they can reach the top, with similar trends in terms of number as those reflective of aspiration.

While women tend to be aspirational and confident about their ability to get to the top, the numbers with regard to those who actually do get to the top, show a clear contradiction between reality and expectations. According to the study, the number of women entering the business environment in the country is relatively on par with men, at 46% and 54% respectively. The number of women in senior leadership positions stands at around 29%, with those in CEO positions at 2.2% for listed companies on the country’s main exchange.

Of the 12 factors tested

The research also explored (out of 12 factors) the factors that women and men employees see as negatively impacting their work environment.

The top most cited factor for women was social norms around their role within wider society. While liberalisation has taken place in the country, the research still found discrimination was a factor affecting success. Among social factors noted, gender role expectations, particularly around caring and housework, tended to also negatively affect the wider work situation.

Women are less likely to believe that equel promotion timelines for both genders exist

Other areas in which women noted considerable negative effects were in terms of promotion-fairness and resources and initiatives to promote gender equality, with many women believing (rightly in all likelihood) that unequal opportunities for promotion exist in the firm – in part from poor training for promotion, unfair evaluations, etc. Inspirational leadership and senior advocacy were other areas in which women feel disadvantaged.

Inspirational leadership was found wanting by respondent women, as were senior advocates supporting women to pursue career advancement. Furthermore, women noted that they were not convinced, on average, that men and women have equal opportunity to be promoted on the same timeline.


The research also found a number of troubling statistics, largely around harassment, exclusion and disrespect – all factors that can significantly influence the everyday experience of a person, their ability/willingness to perform, as well as wider mental health and physical health.

Sexual harassment was found to be a significant issue for women, with around 17% of those surveyed affected at least once per quarter, and 6% at least once per month. 37% of female respondents noted feeling uncomfortable with inappropriate conversations, while 47% of female respondents said that they feel excluded from organisation networking events. 54% of women also said that they feel a lack of respect or acknowledgement.

“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 Catalina Fajardo, co-author of the report. “As a result, many women feel they are ‘going against the grain,’ when they opt for a career.”

However, the environment in South Africa with respect to gender equality in the workplace has recently demonstrated some promising trends. The recent appointment of EY alumnus Pricillah Mabelane as CEO of British Petroleum in South Africa makes her the first black female CEO for BP. This is not BP’s only female executive appointment in South Africa in recent times. In late 2016, BP appointed Kelebogile Tseladimitlwa as their Human Resources Director in South Africa, and Prinisha Khoosal as Commercial Integration Manager in the region.