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Signium women under African skies: Remember how far we’ve come

As South Africa celebrates Women’s Day 2023, Annelize van Rensburg, global Chair of Signium and Director of Executive Search at Signium Africa; Michelle Moss, Director, Assessments at Signium Africa; along with Signium Africa’s client, Sheila Motsepe, Group Executive: Human Capital, Development Bank of Southern Africa, shared their experience, strength and hope for women leaders in business.

Speaking on Women’s Day, it’s clear that all three leaders believe that the common belief that women are more risk-averse than men still exists, but impacts business women in different ways.

Says Van Rensburg, “As mothers and natural caretakers, women may be somewhat more risk averse than men, as their first thought would be for their children. However, we must ask if this is nature or nurture as there are always exceptions to the rule.”

Moss concurs, noting that risk aversion is a character trait that can’t be ascribed to one gender or another. “If we remove all those who are inherently risk averse by nature, we will likely see a very different picture.”

In Motsepe’s experience, the stereotype still exists and is backed by academic data with a focus on women’s gender from a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) perspective. She further adds that the research even looks at when opportunities are being availed to women. In some instances, and for ailing enterprises, even eligible men do not make themselves available for appointment, resulting in a situation where women are subsequently appointed to these C-suite roles, not given the requisite support and in that way “being set up to fail”. The research also shows that the next appointees are then male, thus reinforcing gender stereotypes and the increased risk aversion associated with women leadership.

In cases like this, Van Rensburg says, women seem to not deal as well with personal failure as men do. “Women are more likely to take failure personally and judge themselves harshly, regardless of what caused their failure. We find some then go off the leadership radar to deal with what can be a traumatic event.”

Motsepe and Moss agree that the needs of women in leadership must be dealt with differently, the equity being important to solving this disconnect. Motsepe asserts that the needs of a woman in an entry level position versus a spot in the C-suite are different, and need to be in sync with their life stage. “We have women with incredible potential and we can help them choose their role in the workplace.  Each woman should be viewed as an individual.”

Here Moss suggests that because many women reach a point where they want to have children, they come back to the workforce at a disadvantage. “The men have been climbing the corporate ladder uninterrupted, but women return to a ladder that has a few rungs missing and are left to work out their path on the back foot.”

Interestingly, Moss notes that women who see job opportunities at any life stage will usually not apply for it unless they meet and exceed the criteria in the offer. “Men, however, will generally apply even if they meet around 60% of the criteria and will use on-the-job experience to fill in the gaps.”

Motsepe believes we must normalise women in leadership and retain them in the different business pipelines: “For example,” she says, “between 35 to 45 years we should be actively grooming them for top level management roles. Women’s roles and responsibilities at different ages should be noted and allowances made to support them through these times.”

Importantly, Van Rensburg says her experience with women who come back from failure or family issues are generally highly suited to entrepreneurship. “This is where they shine. Starting a business they are responsible for and seeing the full financial and emotional benefits as milestones of their success means any prior inequity in a corporate environment does not hold them back.”

All three of these business leaders believe that the workplace in South Africa and globally are is still very much a man’s world. Van Rensburg suggests looking at JSE-listed company’s credentials or annual reports to verify. “From there, we see the ratio of men to women in the various management positions – and it’s not always pretty.”

So, how do women in business ensure others with the same talents get a chance to rise up the ranks? “We speak up when we see inequity,” says Moss. “We look within our own company and ensure everyone gets a fair chance at reaching their potential.” Motsepe adds, “We strike a balance: We aren’t saying we need fewer requirements from female candidates or that we need to do anything extraordinary for them because they are women - but we do need equitable support for woman.”

Asked for a single message each would say to women in business and those aiming to be, Van Rensburg responds: “Be brave and be happy in doing so.” Motsepe adds, “Women must be courageous enough to ask for the type of support they need. They must seek out opportunities and take risks.”

Importantly, Moss notes that change isn’t easy, but that women must acknowledge this and invest in their personal development as holistically and in any way that they can, educationally, experientially, socially, and spiritually. “This will give them a better knowledge of business and themselves and help them to keep moving forward.  Never be discouraged. Remember how far we have come. It wasn’t long ago that women didn’t even have the vote.”

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