Women on boards remain the minority.

Over the last seven years there has been a slight increase in the number of board positions held by women in JSE-listed companies.

In fact it would seem that most women are being selected to round out diversity numbers, rather than for their capabilities as business leaders.

According to figures released by research organisation Who Owns Whom, 19.2% of JSE companies’ board positions are held by women. This is up just 2.6% from figures released in 2010 by the Business Women’s Association. Women make up 52% of the total population and 45% of the workforce.

When the 19.2% figure is broken into executive and non-executive positions, 23% of non-executive positions are held by women, while just 10% of executive positions are held by women.

“South African women have overtaken men in terms of literacy, educational attainment, and average years of education,” says Jeremy Dobbin, an economist with Who Owns Whom. “We are familiar with the dominance of the so-called ‘pale males’ in the most senior decision-making structures of the private sector. Yet consider that for JSE-listed companies, there are more directorships held by historically disadvantaged black men than there are directorships held by women of all races.”

There is extensive research that supports the position that gender diversity in the boardroom leads to better performing companies. “Those companies that have a higher representation of women in senior management positions generally financially outperform those with proportionately fewer women at the top,” says Fatima Vawda, founder and MD of 27four Investment Managers and a strong advocate for racial and gender transformation in industry.

“In the financial services sector in particular women dominate positions in administration, HR and marketing, but the real portfolio management positions are largely reserved by males. These are also the highest earning roles.”

The Commission for Employment Equity’s Annual Report 2016-2017 cited unequal treatment at work as the biggest problem facing women in developing economies such as South Africa. Equal pay for equal work is a case in point. “Women are still paid less than men doing the same work. This becomes an impediment to economic empowerment,” notes Dobbin.

A full 19% of listed companies have not a single woman on their boards. This is not unusual according to the 2016 Egon Zehnder Global Board Diversity Analysis, which says that there are a number of countries where the percentage of boards with no women remains close to 50%. “In a country that prizes and strives for diversity it is not really a back slapping commendation that our BRICS counterparts Brazil and Russia fare worse than we do,” says Vawda.

However, when the numbers are looked at differently, 27% of listed companies have more than a quarter of their directorships held by women. Remarkably, this is 18% higher than it was in 2015.

In this regard it would appear that Employment Equity and B-BBEE legislation is helping to drive the inclusion of women in corporate leadership, albeit slowly.

This is being supported by other legislation, such as the Gender Diversity Bill. In addition, in 2015 the JSE committed itself to a women-on-boards initiative by amending listing requirements to insist that listed companies have a policy for the promotion of gender diversity at board level and must disclose their performance against their agreed voluntary targets. These requirements came into effect in January 2017.

“If the economic transformation of South Africa is truly going to be radical, then it must surely be reliant upon the economic empowerment of its women,” says Dobbin.