In March 2023, the world’s attention was on International Women’s Day (IWD), and the accompanying theme, #EmbraceEquity. The slogan centred on equity rather than equality, achieving equal outcomes, as against just equal opportunities.
In this article, my focus will turn to the representation of women in executive leadership and decision-making roles in Corporate Africa. This topic is important because it has a big impact on empowering women beyond the boardroom to predominantly male fields like health, technology, and sports. To provide context, let’s first examine the global perspective.
Global representation of women in the corporate sector
According to a June 2022 London School of Economics article, institutions such as the IFC, IMF, World Bank, ILO, McKinsey, and the European Commission have been supporting the business case for women in senior leadership positions. They found that gender diversity on boards resulted in greater shareholder value, corporate governance, financial performance, return on equity and assets, customer and employee satisfaction, investor confidence, and market reputation.
As of 2021, only 8.1% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, even though the percentage of women in CEO roles has slowly increased since 2000. But women are still the minority, with only 41 female CEOs, and only two who are Black.
The African story
Looking specifically at African corporations and business professionals, the progress is limited. A McKinsey report from 2016, “Women Matter Africa,” said that African companies are no different from their global counterparts in terms of corporate performance. Companies with at least a quarter share of women on their boards had an average 20% higher EBIT margin than the industry average. Yet, according to The Boardroom’s 2021 Diversity Report, women only hold 14.2% of executive board seats and 15.7% of non-executive director seats of listed companies.
To be sure, more women are now taking on roles as managers, executive directors, and managing directors in Corporate Africa. West Africa’s United Bank for Africa recently appointed its first female CEO for Africa, making its Group Board a majority-female one.
Factors driving female representation in corporate Africa
I believe a few factors can help to increase the pace of female representation in Corporate Africa. For example, the traditional African “Omugwo” (a familial post- pregnancy-support-system by grandmothers), can allow more African women to return to their careers with the assurance that their children are being looked after by family. Rising inflation and higher child-rearing costs sometimes necessitate families to have two working parents. Hence, in Nigeria, where I come from, there is growing acceptance of contraception as a means of planning for childbirth. What’s more, African women who are embracing more education, can apply for more executive roles. Finally. Gen Zs and Millennials appear to be rejecting traditional stereotypes of women’s roles, such as cooking. Some working women order ready-made soups and staples, which are delivered to their homes, crashing meal prep times.
Investment as a driver for equity
ESG requirements from investors and donors have also played a significant role in promoting equitable practices in African companies. According to a January 2023 report from Rover Publication, Botswana, Uganda, and Ghana ranked first, second, and third, respectively, as countries with the highest number of women entrepreneurs globally for the third consecutive year, and ESG stipulations by donor and aid agencies may have contributed to this trend.
The same report shows that 58% of African SMEs, which contribute around $300 billion to the continent’s GDP, are run by women. Unfortunately, only 1% of these women-led SMEs receive funding from venture capitalists. So, although the region is benefitting significantly from the high rates of female entrepreneurship, access to capital remains a challenge.
The presence of such levels of female entrepreneurship could provide leverage for gender equity, if only access to capital wasn’t such a challenge. In Aviva Whitten Cox words – “a good chunk of the funding that goes to female-led startups in Africa (especially in Kenya) goes to non-local founders,”
The role of governments
Governments can take the lead in mainstreaming gender equity by implementing boardroom quotas, coupled with diversity disclosure requirements. Germany, India, Brazil, Iceland, Spain, and Israel have implemented this strategy. Some argue, however, that it may not always be equitable for companies, as they must hire according to knowledge, skills, and experience, and in some cases, that may be disproportionate to target quotas.
An alternative approach may be voluntary targets implemented by corporations, prompted by civil society, motivated by investors, and impelled by government policies.
Ultimately, it will still fall on individual women (and men willing to embrace equity) to ensure they get their justified seats at the board table. According to the previously mentioned McKinsey & Co. research, traits that high-achieving African female executives share include a robust work ethic, persistence in achieving goals, a willingness to take risks, resilience in the face of adversity (including having the courage to dissent), a commitment to professional development, and proactive cultivation of mentors, sponsors, and peer networks (across genders).
These are undoubtedly the traits of leadership and make a case for women to take on more roles at the helm of affairs in Corporate Africa.
Subomi Plumptre is the CEO of Volition Cap, an African SEC-licensed asset management firm working to bring financial prosperity to middle class Africans and Diasporans.