As South Africa pays tribute to women across the country during Women’s Month, and particularly as the nation begins to pick up the pieces of our flailing economy in the wake of COVID-19, one cannot ignore the statistics on gender diversity in corporate South Africa. Bain & Company’s latest Gender (Dis)parity in South Africa report indicates that there is still much room for improvement with only 29% of women holding senior leadership roles and just 10% of CEOs in South Africa are women. This number needs to be 30% or higher for women to have a real influence.
Gender diversity not only improves business outcomes, but also makes it easier to attract and retain talent. Progressive resolutions to complicated business challenges are enriched by different thinking and approaches to driving solutions that can only come from having a diverse leadership team. Each business has customers, suppliers, merchants, employees and various stakeholders that are diverse. To really add value and understand these stakeholders, diversity within an organization is of utmost importance.
It’s time for businesses to take a look at their internal culture and ask themselves if they are doing enough to promote diversity within their ranks.
Despite the current low volume of women present at the boardroom table, van Brakel is optimistic about what the future holds for women in South Africa’s finance industry. If gender diversity is valued by top management, the focus to change leadership will happen ensuring an increase of females as decision makers. Looking at the financial services industry in particular, there are still a number of challenges that need to be overcome. Among them is a lack of women role models in senior leadership positions, as well as companies with policies that promote flexible hours.
Both of these are essential in levelling the playing field for women in business. There is a marked under-representation of women at all levels, and not enough mentoring, coaching, and support for the talent in the business to ensure they progress as they should. Additionally, not having diverse talent to promote is a severe obstacle for any company.
My own career path has had a huge influence on how I view diversity in my industry. Having started out as an audit clerk at RCS, I went on to spend some time abroad before returning to South Africa – and RCS where I worked my way up to executive level by the age of 38. RCS has a 75% female staff compliment – 46% of leadership roles are filled by women including 35% in top management. My journey has shown me that mentorship, coaching and general interest by senior management in one’s career are of utmost importance. It creates a safe environment to learn and be challenged. Both formal and informal forms of mentorship create new opportunities to learn and push oneself beyond one’s current job description.
Early in my own career, I met very inspiring women in senior leadership positions at RCS’ shareholder, BNP Paribas. BNP places a lot of emphasis on the importance of gender diversity. Interacting with inspiring senior leaders in various roles was a big benefit to my career as it clearly showed the impact of these women on the business. This allowed me to see first-hand how more diverse senior leadership naturally leads to a fair and inclusive culture and it allowed me to envision and ultimately carve out my own growth path.
In closing, here are some words of encouragement for other ambitious women who are just starting to carve out their own careers. Don’t try to compete as a man. The different perspective and approach to problems and solutions that you as a women offer add value. Never stop challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone and don’t be scared of situations where you are the only female at the table – bring your uniqueness and new ideas to the table. Above all, stay true to yourself and be your own kind of leader, so that we can continue to create a new generation of leaders.
Mariné van Brakel is CFO of consumer financier RCS, wholly owned subsidiary of BNP Paribas Group.