Although the constitutions of most African countries call for gender parity, women still face discrimination when it comes to company boardrooms. The issue is not confined to Africa but is global and reflects a cultural bias rather than being performance-related. By Allen Choruma
Women constitute 52% of the population in Zimbabwe and are estimated at 13.5m. Women constitute 51% of the rural population and 53% of the urban population according to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT). But when it comes to gender diversity in leadership, men occupy far greater positions of power than women. Of concern is that this violates section 17 (1) (a) of the Zimbabwe Constitution, which provides that the State must promote full gender balance and in particular, full participation of women in all spheres of society on the basis of equality with men.
The government of Zimbabwe has shown commitment to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment by ratification of a number of gender-related international and regional protocols, which include the United Nations Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), the African Charter on the Rights of Women and the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development (SADCPGD).
Despite all this commitment, Zimbabwe is far from achieving women’s empowerment and gender equality in all spheres of society. A recent ZIMSTAT report, Understanding Gender Equality in Zimbabwe: Women and Men Report 2016, shows that a lot still needs to be done to ensure that Zimbabwe attains full gender equality in all spheres of life as enshrined in its constitution.
A 2015 study, published in the Global Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences: ‘Measuring Gender Differences on Boards of Directors of Companies Listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange’, conducted by T. Njaya and Z. Chimbadzwa (Zimbabwe Open University), provides interesting statistics on gender diversity on the boards of 64 ZSE listed companies.
The survey concludes that “with all the attention the issue is obtaining, one would think that companies were doing better to promote gender equality in their boardrooms. The small number of women directors demonstrated that the various corporate leadership groups had not yet embraced [gender] diversity within their boards.”
Some positive blips
There are however blips of positive news. Some women have made progress by getting onto boards in the public sector. The ZIMSTAT report above shows that for the 100 State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) surveyed, there were 23 female CEOs and 77 male CEOs. On the same boards, 29% of directors were female and 71% male.
This falls far short of the constitutional provisions, which direct that there should be equal gender representation in all institutions and agencies of government.
What is startling is that the gender imbalance trends in Zimbabwe’s corporate landscape also mirror the regional and international trends in gender imbalances in business leadership, showing that this is a global phenomenon.
The Business Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) 2015 Women in Leadership Census noted that at the 293 Johannesburg Securities Exchange (JSE) listed companies, there were only seven (2.4%) female CEOs. Only 34 (out of 293) JSE-listed companies attained top performing company status, meaning they had at least 25% female directors and top executives. Across all these organisations, the BWASA report noted that only 11.6% of directors were female, of which 9.20% were female chairpersons.
In the UK, the October 2017 FTSE 100 Female Report shows that all- male boards have now disappeared from the top 100 UK companies by revenue. FTSE 100 boards have 294/1050 (27.7%) female directors, of which 25 are female executive directors (9.8%) and 269 are female non-executive directors (33.3%). Companies with at least 33% female directors number 28 and those with female chairpersons, 6. The number of female CEOs at the FTSE 100 companies is 7.
According to Statista.com, Fortune 500 companies (the top 500 US companies by revenue) had 27 (5.4%) female CEOs in January 2018. Females comprised only 20.2% of F500 directors in 2016, with 24 (4.8%) companies (4.8%) not having a single female director. According to a June 2017 report in Fortune magazine, women’s share of new board appointments declined by 2% to 27.3% in 2016, which dip suggests gender parity on corporate boards won’t be reached till 2032.
Some European countries have introduced legislation to increase the number of women on boards, i.e. Norway (40%), France (20%) and Italy (20%). India amended its Companies Act in 2003 to provide for the appointment of at least one woman on companies’ boards. The UK targets 33% women on FTSE boards by 2020. The European Union is mulling over the introduction of a law mandating a 40% female quota on corporate boards.
Gender, not performance issue
Returning to Zimbabwe, while women have made progress in filling leadership positions in the public sector, where they occupy 23% of CEO positions and 29% of directorships, the picture is gloomier in the private sector, where women are making little progress in climbing the corporate ladder. In 2018, they accounted for a paltry 3 out of 63 of ZSE-listed company CEOs (4.76%). At the current pace it would take the ZSE decades to achieve gender parity in corporate leadership.
Despite overwhelming empirical evidence showing positive contributions that women make to the performance of corporate boards and organisations, getting women on these boards has moved at a snail’s pace. What this shows is that lack of gender parity on corporate boards is not performance-based but a gender issue. It shows that men, who still dominate ownership and control of the means of production, are reluctant to bring women on board.
There is therefore an overwhelming need to change business practices, cultural perceptions and societal stereotypes where gender equality is seen as a women’s issue. Engaging men as champions to help women succeed and advance is also critical. Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, it’s a fundamental human rights issue. Progress for women is progress for everyone.
Africa at large has stockpiles of gender laws, policies and international protocols on gender tucked away in its back rooms. Where the continent is falling short is having the political will to apply its own laws and to domesticate international gender protocols and apply them in letter and spirit.
From a business angle, some interventions that should be implemented to increase the percentage of women in corporate governance include affirmative action to ensure diversity, shareholder activism to push for gender balance, and the harmonisation and alignment of company laws, capital markets rules, corporate governance codes, etc with the national constitutions.
Additionally, organisations such as the Institute of Directors Zimbabwe (IODZ) and women’s business associations should lead the charge for gender diversity on corporate boards through inclusive gender initiatives and programmes.
Sir Peter Gregson, Vice Chancellor at Cranfield University (Cranfield Female FTSE Report, 2017) aptly concluded: “Organisations that embrace diversity, thrive. They reap the benefits from creating an environment where the best talent is recruited and rewarded, regardless of gender. Creating this environment requires more than one-off initiatives, it needs system-wide change where everyone across the organisation understands the importance of removing gender barriers.” NA