Shattering the glass ceiling

High angle view of a businesswoman standing amidst multiethnic businesspeople

Recent figures indicate that in South Africa today, women are steadily making their way up the ladder with government representation approximating 36.6% when it comes to women in top management and local government, specifically, at 27.7%.

This is in contrast to public sector’s 19.2% women representation in top management. Advancing women in leadership is an important topic on government’s agenda. August marks Women’s Month and while we celebrate women, we also remember the struggles they had to endure to secure the equality available to them today – an equality that is unfortunately still under debate.

As the South African Local Government Association’s (SALGA) Sindiswa Gomba states, “South Africa commemorates Women’s Month in August as a tribute to the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women. The march was a resounding success and South Africa recognises the bravery of these women who risked arrest, detention and banning by declaring 9 August National Women’s Day.

“The year 2015 has been declared the year for women’s empowerment and development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063; towards an effective participation of women in the public sector who are in decision-making positions. South Africa’s theme for 2015 August month is: ‘Women United in Moving South Africa Forward’ which emphasizes unity of purpose among women and their vital role as agents of development. The theme is premised around socio-economic empowerment issues and women’s rights,” she says.

Gomba highlights that women make up over half the population of South Africa. As a result, the role of local government in championing and mainstreaming gender in its day-to-day function cannot be over-emphasized. She says that as SALGA, they are proud to be in a country that has some of the most progressive policies aimed at advancing women empowerment and gender equality. She however acknowledges that 21 years into democracy and almost 15 years of democratic and developmental local government, the challenge remains in the actual translation and implementation of these policies and legislative frameworks.

Sandra Burmeister, CEO of Amrop Lhandelani, tells Service that when it comes to the challenges women in public sector leadership face, it is similar to those in the private sector and stem to some extent from a cultural bias against women, which has historical roots in all sectors of society. She says women are at a disadvantage as they generally shoulder family responsibilities, and often cannot put up their hand for ‘stretch’ assignments that demand long hours and distance travel.

Gender pay gap

Burmeister also points out the question of the gender pay gap. Women earn less than men for similar work she says. Despite initiatives to reduce gender inequality, in South Africa, as elsewhere, the gender pay gap has increased from 33% in 2009 to 38% in 2014. This means that women currently earn less than two-thirds of the amount men earn for similar work. She says this pay gap may be smaller in the public sector, but there is no doubt it still exists.

“There are several reasons for the persistence of gender pay anomalies. The ‘motherhood pay gap’ remains a reality, since women continue to remain the primary caregivers. According to the International Labour Organisation, women with children can expect to earn less when they return to work than childless women, with the difference increasing for every child they have. However, there is an ‘unexplained pay gap’ that likely comes down to a combination of women’s own reluctance to insist on earning what they are worth and outright prejudice and discrimination,” she says.

As Burmeister highlights, the challenges that women in public sector face become more insistent as they advance to leadership positions, but their essence remains the same. “We have managed to increase the number of women graduates, and consequently have almost reached parity with 43% gender representation at the professional level, creating a strong pipeline for future women leaders,” she says.

While employment equity legislation has given a boost to gender parity in South Africa, global research shows that few organisations perform well on both ethnic and gender diversity she says. According to her, Government faces the challenge that the strong focus on black economic empowerment may well continue at the expense of gender empowerment, despite recent measures intended to address this.

Cerita Nagy, ‎National President of the South African Council for Business Women, says that while the opportunities are increasing for women in the public sector, only few rise to leadership positions. According to her there is unfortunately still a glass ceiling, although the foundations are in place for women to advance into leadership positions. The challenge, she says, is to recognise and to acquire new knowledge, new skills, and new experience for them to have the capabilities to deal with their new challenges.

“The most common challenge for women is that they are still mothers, wives/partners and daughters, and the sacrifice involved is huge, the biggest challenge for women is to achieve balance between work and home. Support systems at work place and home are vital and time management, stress management and people management is equally important. In the public sector, pressures come from several fronts and leadership positions require a high level of courage and endurance. It is important for women to be focused and to have their energies aligned to achieving the best results and to cope under such pressures,” she told Service.


Nagy says more women are working in both the public and private sector and starting their own businesses which pose various obstacles and challenges that they need to overcome in the process. “Coco Chanel said that ‘There is time for work, and time for love. That leaves no other time.’ I believe and experienced myself that one of the most common challenges for women is balancing a career and family, they usually find themselves torn between these two commitments,” she says.

She also points out that another challenge women face in the workplace is the perception that certain businesses are better handled by men or the assumption that women are generally incompetent in certain fields of life. “Women need to believe in themselves, in their capabilities and strengths and be more determined to succeed! I believe that the success lies in women and men working together and leveraging on each other’s strengths, experiences and knowledge. This will allow us in the public and private sectors to make the difference in the economy of South Africa and to take us to the next level of performance and progress in the workplace,” she says.

On SALGA’s behalf, Gomba also highlights that while important strides have been made to empower women and promote gender equality, women still bear a disproportionate burden of the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. She says SALGA has identified the need to support the national developmental goal of women’s empowerment and gender equality at a local government level, by ensuring that there is continued advocacy through the establishment of the SALGA Women’s Commission (SWC). ”The SWC is a mechanism to institutionalise our advocacy processes as the voice of women in local government and is aimed at supporting and strengthening the national and international development goals of women empowerment and gender equity,” says.

Looking at how gender transformation compares between public and private sector, Burmeister says companies in the public and private sectors across the world are faltering when it comes to the advancement of women in leadership positions. According to her, progress has stalled or is rolling backwards and that despite increasing pressure from governments, major research houses and women themselves, little has been achieved over the past five years.

She says in South Africa, as elsewhere, most of the progress took place in the mid-2000s, but that more recently, the rate of transformation has slowed. This is a major concern to her. Moreover, she says, private companies trail the public sector markedly in female representation, with provincial government leading the way at almost all job levels. “Across all sectors, there is a fall-off in the proportion of women as they climb up the career ladder. This must be remedied, we need to plug the leaks at every level in the promotion pipeline,” she says.

In an article published in the business section of City Press, editor Ferial Haffajee asks the questions whether the glass ceiling is half-full or half-empty in South Africa. According to her, “like most things, it depends on how you look at it.” She says that in recent weeks, the Brics summit in Russia was at the top of the news cycle.


She says if you look at female empowerment in business through the lenses of Brazil, Russia, India and China, then South Africa comes in at the top of the class. “South Africa outstrips the emerging market giants significantly when it comes to the number of female directors sitting on company boards. Directors are the power centres who make key decisions in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. One in five directors in South Africa is a woman. Globally, South Africa tracks lower than index leaders in Scandinavia, but it is among the best in the world,” she says.

But, as she puts it, “drill down a little to see how the glass ceiling has splintered, not cracked”. If one looks at the population divide by sex in South Africa, it is constant: it is about half, with slightly more women than men in South Africa. She also points out that the percentage of women in the workforce is also constant, ranging from 44.6% to 45.8%, according to the Businesswomen’s Association Women in Leadership census that was published recently.

“But then the pyramid narrows substantially. Female executive managers measured as a total of the executive corps in South Africa grew from 19.3% to 29.3% in the measuring period – which was a significant ten percentage points. But things are much slower at the pinnacle of power. Barely more than one in ten women are CEOs, showing how impervious mahogany row can be to gender change.

“The census includes the public and private sectors. The progress of women in the public sector is significant. In government management and in state-owned companies, women comprise 40.5% of top managers (the equivalent of executive and CEO levels in the private sector). The census reveals how the public sector can mask the slow progress in the private sector if you take only a bird’s-eye view of the numbers,” she says.

Besides public sector or local government leadership, the advancing of women in scarce skills sectors is another important topic. According to Burmeister, we need a high proportion of women at the professional and skilled levels to boost the pipeline at senior and top management levels. She says the shortage of women graduates in information technology, engineering and other technical skills is one of the reasons gender transformation is moving so slowly.

She does however mention that as more women move into these professions, so the gender balance of the graduate profile is changing. She says, in South Africa, as well as in many other African countries, the proportion of female university graduates overall now exceeds that of men.

“Favouring women for technical jobs makes sense only if such people are available. The objective is to empower and increase the number of women in gainful employment. That means hiring skilled people for the job. A blanket target of 50% women would pose difficulties for sectors where two-thirds of workers are technical – such as in mining, engineering, infrastructure and information technology, where there simply may not be enough women to fill positions in all types of jobs,” she says.

Gender transformation

Looking at government’s role in driving gender transformation in local government, Nagy says since May 2014 a dedicated Ministry for Women was appointed as a way of elevating women’s issues and interests to lead, coordinate and oversee the transformation agenda on women’s socio-economic empowerment, rights and equality.

“I believe that although the participation of women has increased significantly in the various spheres of government, women are still under-represented and that gender issues should still be an important item on the agenda of government. All spheres of government have both a moral and a constitutional obligation to implement programmes that will empower women, improve their status and advance their rights,” she says.

Nagy further points out that the most important issues facing us with respect to advancing women in local government are the socio-economic and political emancipation of women, ensuring the full integration of women into the labour market without any discrimination and ensuring that public sector service delivery is gender sensitive.

Gomba concludes by saying, “As we are gearing up for the 2016 local government elections, the vision of the Women’s Commission is to revive the 50/50 campaign to pave the way for women empowerment now and beyond. This year’s theme and agenda seeks to push more political involvement and implementation of political commitment. As women, we often leave our appreciation unspoken!”



Sindiswa Griselda Gomba - PR Cllr.jpg Cerita Nagy.jpg Sandra Burmeister-Landelahni-DSC_3072 med.jpg
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This edition

Issue 68