Equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue

Equality is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue

If the title of this blog post rings a bell, it’s because this line was the theme for International Women’s Day 2020, and rightly so. The wide-reaching research available on the topic of women in the boardroom shows that gender equality has a strong business case. It’s not just great for women, it’s great for financial and social performance of a company too. As we celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa this month, let’s catch up on what this theme means in our local context. 

Since we offer strategic business services and reputation management, the SWM team has a finger on the pulse on the challenges and trends facing South African businesses today. Further, we specialise in offering these services to traditionally male-dominated industries involving science, technology and engineering. Here’s what we are seeing:

Transformation policies are widely lacking

Despite South Africa’s somewhat supportive legislative environment regarding gender equality, challenges persist. As part of its mandate, one of our clients undertook a substantial research effort into transformation policies in their industry. It was found that while the built environment sector widely acknowledges the value of a gender-diverse workforce, only 22% of firms studied had a gender diversity policy or programme in place. We have witnessed similar trends when consulting with companies in other industries on their business development strategies. While business growth and human capital expansion is often high on the agenda, the empowerment and support of women through these strategies is an after-thought. In industries where female representation is low, companies should be striving to challenge the status quo for the benefit of women’s right, but also for company performance and social standing. 

Companies are gatekeepers of culture

While improving company policies would be a great place to start, transformation is largely a social and attitudinal issue requiring a shift in mindset. In a country where big business is driven by large enterprises, state-owned entities, and government itself, these prominent entities are big employers with a sizable audience primed for strategic messaging. 

At the most basic level, getting people to act on a message requires a strong campaign – it’s marketing. A case in point is the #BlackLivesMatter campaign which has seen massive multinational organisations align to the movement and see the message spread far and wide. Big businesses hold key resources to promote better corporate (and social) culture, both to employees and to customers. Businesses should leverage their resources to encourage transformation in their sectors. 

Men are part of the discussion and part of the solution 

When aiding companies with their workforce transformation goals, we always stress the importance of including men in the conversation. Particularly in the male-centric industries we work with, little progress will be made in improving female representation without involving men as mentors, teachers, and coaches. While many initiatives boast women-only events as an avenue to improve cohesion and support, it isolates men from the discussion and puts women in an echo-chamber. Women-centred luncheons and workshops are excellent for networking and skills development, but companies should consider additional, inclusive initiatives to see an improved pipeline of appropriately skilled women in the talent pool.