Top female execs can address SA’s gender pay gap

Christelle Colman

By Christelle Colman, Chief Executive Officer of Europ Assistance South Africa.



As we enter August, which is celebrated as Women’s Month, I am often reminded about the gender pay gap which is still a very big issue – not only in South Africa, but globally.

A global report conducted by Accenture in 2016, which included South Africa, found that, in South Africa, for every $100 a woman earns, a man earns $191 (compared to the global $140). However, the real people who can make a difference in addressing this wage discrimination are the ones at the top because they hold the power to make decisions about salary spend – but it certainly seems like they are simply not doing it.

Over my years of experience as a CEO, both of a local business and now of the local arm of a global organisation, I have noticed how the majority of women in senior positions shy away from having the gender discussion. In the boardroom and workplace, they feel like they need to be more like men, almost genderless, so that they ‘fit in’. They do not acknowledge that as women we are different, many of us are working mothers and by its very nature we have different needs. And most importantly, it is our responsibility to continue the discussion about gender equality and to not only drive the change, but to be the change, we would like to see.

A recent report by PwC revealed that of the top 40 Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed companies only one company had a female Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In Africa only 5% of women hold this position, according to the 2016 Women Matter Africa report by McKinsey & Company.

It is my opinion that one of the major reasons why there are so few women in leadership positions is because the business world is simply not designed to fulfil the needs of women throughout their different life stages. All things considered, it really is a man’s world.

There is a strong argument that this is a primary reason why so many women drop out of the workplace after becoming mothers, as it becomes almost impossible to balance a full time career and full time family, both mentally and physically.

This view is strongly supported a US-based start-up called Werk . It would serve South African business well to look at this company’s business strategy for inspiration on how to enable more women to reach senior positions.

Werk is a new type of job marketplace that connects women who are looking for career-building opportunities, but require more flexibility in terms of working arrangements. Contracts are pre-negotiated according to the needs of the employee and employer.

According to co-founders of Werk, Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean, more than 30% of the most talented women leave the workforce entirely after having children, but 70% would have kept working if they had flexibility. This inspired them to create a company that aims to address the gender gap in the US workforce.

We can really learn from Werk by realising that in order to truly address the gender pay gap, a real paradigm shift needs to happen. South African businesses need to be more open to negotiating flexible working hours and remuneration contracts for mothers. Society expects mothers to fulfil certain duties, but they do not adapt the workplace for them. Unfortunately as we are talking about legacy behaviour, these workplace rules were written by men.

In addition to closing the pay gap, it is proven that gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform their peers, according to McKinsey & Company Report ‘Why Diversity Matters’ published in 2015.

It simply makes good business sense to become more adaptable. 

I agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s (Chief Operating Officer of Facebook) recent message that women need to stand up and own up. They need to be the change that they want to see.

Senior women represented in South Africa’s boardrooms are in the perfect position to fight inequality in the workplace – particularly those occupying senior leadership roles.

I want to encourage every woman in a senior role to step up and help make the changes required to improve gender equality in the work place. In the inspirational words of Marianne Williamson: “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”.



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