As a woman in the South African banking industry, I’ve been privy to many discussions around the importance of empowering women. The challenges women face across Africa have been deepened by the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted them.
South Africa’s unemployment rate reached an all-time high in 2021 and women have been the hardest hit. The unemployment rate for women currently stands at 37.3%, compared with 32.9% for men. Black women continue to be the most vulnerable with an unemployment rate of 41.5%, compared to 9.9% for white women, 25.2% among Indian and Asian women, and 29.1% for coloured women.
Advancing gender equality isn’t just the right thing to do. Research has shown that businesses promoting diversity perform better financially. This can’t be a cosmetic ambition. The change has to be deep rooted in a company’s DNA — from employee equity to marketing — for it to be meaningful.
Despite the challenges, I’ve seen companies actively working to be a part of the solution, particularly in the financial services industry. The work this industry has undertaken provides valuable insights which can be applied across industries.
Addressing women’s unique needs
Any solution created to address a socioeconomic problem must focus on the specific needs of those impacted.
FNB responded to the need for women to grow their networks and learn from experts by partnering with Future Females. Together with the international organisation aimed at inspiring women entrepreneurs, FNB offers monthly events and workshops where they can do this. The bank has also prioritised the growth of its women in business portfolio which, by the end of June 2021, consisted of over 240,000 women and included women-owned businesses with a combined value of R33 billion.
Absa Bank, meanwhile, sought to address women’s limited access to finance through creating SMME (small, micro, and medium enterprises) funding solutions aimed specifically at supporting women empowerment by providing a business loan for 51% Black- and women-owned businesses.
How to take action today
Women face unique challenges when it comes to equality and inclusivity. To identify interventions in your business that can assist on this front, consider these questions:
- Can my business create products that address women’s needs?
- Is there an organisation my business can partner with to amplify our women’s empowerment efforts?
A simple approach to ensuring your products and services cater to women’s needs is to include women in their development. Entering into a strategic partnership can make tackling the challenges easier. There are two easy steps a business can take when embarking on forming meaningful partnerships:
- Do your research: Find experienced players with complementary knowledge and expertise for the goal you want to achieve.
- Reach out: Contact your prospective partner with a plan that lays out what the partnership will look like and how your project aligns with their values.
Fostering a culture of leadership development for women
The number of women in managerial positions is still low. In South Africa, only four of the top 40 JSE-listed companies have a female CEO and women hold only 32% of executive positions.
A 2020 Banking Association of South Africa report found that the number of Black women directors in the banking industry rose from 25 in 2016 to 40 in 2019.
At Standard Bank, women held 37% of board positions and 40.3% of senior management positions in 2019, and the business has set targets to improve this by 2023. Through its Top Women initiative, the bank also aims to recognise the achievements of women leaders and increase their visibility as role models for other businesswomen.
How to take action today
Empowerment is more than just supporting women in business. Companies should also be creating opportunities for women to succeed in the corporate world.
Do a quick audit by asking:
- Is the business nurturing a pipeline of women leaders and managers?
- What kind of mentorship and skills development opportunities exist in the business?
Businesses can create a culture that promotes leadership development for women by providing direct pathways of development and growth (particularly into leadership positions) and eliminating biases such as a gender pay gap.
Leaders should also be encouraged to mentor women by sharing their expertise and providing constructive feedback where needed.
Inspire change by leveraging influence
Business leaders are critical in advocating for equality and allyship. Leaders should use their influence to speak out on issues impacting women, and not just on international and national women’s days.
This may mean supporting the work of organisations advancing women’s issues — but support need not be financial. Nedbank CEO Mike Brown condemned gender-based violence alongside Nedbank employees in a personal message on the company’s website.
How to take action today
When business leaders speak out on issues that impact their staff and customers, they further foster an inclusive company culture and potentially even create social change, as we have seen in other civil rights movements around the world.
Start the process by asking:
- Are we creating a safe space in our business where issues impacting women can be raised?
- How can we better involve leaders in taking a stand on issues impacting women?
Fostering gender equity takes more than ticking a box
It’s easy to fall into the trap of only focusing on women on certain days of the year. These examples show two things: gender equality and financial inclusion need to be worked on in parallel, and efforts towards social good should be ingrained in a company’s DNA rather than being reduced to slogans and platitudes.
Multiple studies have shown that championing gender equity has a direct impact on organisational success and a positive impact on productivity, innovation, and creativity. In fact, research shows that companies with a higher number of women executives earn a 47% higher rate of return on equity than companies without women in executive positions.
To make sure that you’re building an effective roadmap to inclusion, follow this quick guideline:
- Understand how people within your organisation perceive gender equality by setting up surveys or town hall discussions to guide your next steps.
- Determine your starting point. Conduct an analysis of employment practices, internal policies, suppliers, and product lines to identify gaps or weaknesses.
- Set measurable targets for improvement with clear deadlines and build these into reporting and management processes such as performance assessments.