When leaders got together and engaged, the discussions were powerful, said the president of the Businesswomen’s Association of SA, Farzanah Mall, at Thursday’s Women Leaders Shaping the SA Economy luncheon.
But discussions would have to be pretty powerful to change this picture: Women make up more than 45% of the South African workforce, yet at the most senior levels, only 9.2% of chairpersons of boards are women, and only 2.9% of chief executives are women, said Mall.
And in general, for every dollar a man earned, a woman earned 74c, said KPMG’s Rohitesh Dhawan – the only male speaker at the event.
But how can South Africa change these statistics? How exactly are women shaping the economy?
If anyone can answer these questions, it is Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, prominent businesswoman Hixonia Nyasulu, and humanitarian and nutritionist Dr Lungile Bhengu, all of whom spoke at the event.
One of Nyasulu’s top tips for working with people is that most are more open in a risk-free environment, such as a lunch or a spa date.
That was certainly the case at the stylish 54 On Bath Hotel in Rosebank, where they served fabulous food such as butternut soup with feta balls and tahini crackers, and plates of the most delicious sea bass, chicken breast and butternut gnocchi, while speakers tackled the hard topics.
“Women have always been the backbone of South Africa’s economy,” said Madonsela. “When migrant labour was introduced, who kept those economies going? Many of the men and women running the economy today grew up in rural areas and the reason they grew up and were educated was because their mothers found a way to make things work and to send children to school ... Women in urban economies were pioneers in informal trade, and some of the women eventually forced the door open into the formal economy.”
As a postcolonial generation, said Madonsela, “we are lucky because the many difficult trails have been blazed by the women who went before us”.
“Our task now is to help consolidate democracy. We have a responsibility to help deliver the constitutional promise that has been made to every person in South Africa ... You don’t have to lift the entire nation. Make a difference in one person’s life,” said Madonsela.
To do this, women have to first free their own potential.
“And when advancing up the ladder of success, rather take your time than allow yourself to be someone’s proxy,” she said.
Advice on how women can advance in business?
Recognise opportunities and prepare yourself to move to these positions with merit, said Nyasulu. “And read the material before a meeting, don’t try catch up during the meeting,” she chuckled.
“The level of debate that comes out of diversity in a boardroom is unbelievable, but transformation is broader than regulation – it includes data, innovation. And the digital revolution means your competitors know exactly what you are doing,” she said.
“Ideas drive economies, but you’re more likely to be robbed by an external force.”
Although Nyasulu said women needed to learn to be able to challenge other women, she added that not every criticism was because someone was a woman, or because someone was black.
“I see a lot of women who see ghosts where none exist.”