• 02 Nov 2023
  • Sarah Babb
  • 4Min

Challenging the Status Quo: Unveiling Gender Disparity in Leadership

Challenging the Status Quo: Unveiling Gender Disparity in Leadership

In the 2023 Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, Sub-Saharan Africa’s parity score is the sixth highest among the eight regions at 68.2%, ranking above Southern Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. However, progress in the region has been uneven, revealing persistent gender disparity. Namibia, Rwanda and South Africa, along with 13 other countries, have closed more than 70% of the overall gender gap. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali and Chad are the lowest-performing countries, with scores below 62%. Based on the constant sample, this marks a marginal improvement of 0.1 percentage points. At the current rate of progress, it will take 102 years to close the gender gap in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In South Africa, a nation known for its dynamic diversity, women hold only 28% of business leadership positions, as reported in the 2016 McKinsey Women Matter (Africa) Report. While some contend that progress is being made towards achieving gender equity in leadership roles, the numbers tell a different story. The question that demands our attention is whether women still find themselves underrepresented in senior management positions.

The answer, backed by a barrage of data and research, resoundingly affirms that gender inequity persists, and it is costing us dearly.

The Gender Disparity Stakes Are High

In an era fraught with economic and political challenges, strong leadership is the bedrock of resilience and success. Yet, a staggering 18% of women leak from professional positions to senior management, representing an alarming loss of leadership talent—an opportunity missed.

The picture becomes even bleaker at the board level. While women initially comprise 47% of the professional workforce, this figure plummets to a mere 13% in boardrooms. McKinsey’s research reveals a striking correlation: companies with at least a quarter of women on their boards boast an average earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) margin a remarkable 20% higher than industry averages. This glaring disparity not only signifies lost opportunities for business but also underscores the financial benefits of diversity.

Beyond the Gender Disparity Numbers

While correlation doesn’t imply causation, interviews conducted by McKinsey with industry leaders highlight the multifaceted benefits of diversity. From improved risk management to more informed decision-making and enhanced board dynamics, the ripple effects of diversity extend far beyond financial performance.

The March 2017 Grant Thornton International Business Report reinforces these findings. Surveying 5,500 male and female business leaders, it revealed that as boards diversified, risk management became more robust. This observation is underpinned by the distinct responses to risk brought by women—a nuanced and balanced approach.

However, the challenge transcends mere numerical equality. Gender bias woven into workplace structures erects invisible yet formidable barriers for women. The gender wage gap, where women globally receive, on average, 77 cents against every dollar earned by their male counterparts for similar work, stands as a stark testament to this bias. Research by Eagly & Heilman identifies disparities in opportunities, rewards, access to networks, and support systems for women.

Making Bias Visible

To confront gender bias, it must first be made visible and addressed through education for leaders and staff alike. Cultural assumptions inadvertently favor men while disadvantaging women. Business landscapes often lack female role models, perpetuate gendered career paths, limit women’s access to networks and sponsors, and subject women to “double binds.” Traditional notions associate leadership with masculinity, constraining women who excel in male-dominated domains.

Unconscious bias further manifests in the “glass cliff” phenomenon, whereby women are disproportionately appointed to organisations in crisis or at risk of failure. Coupled with the “savior effect,” it perpetuates the myth that women leaders are weak and less capable.

Women as Token Appointments

Decision-makers often reserve plum positions, including leadership roles, for in-group members, predominantly men. When women ascend, they may feel like token appointments based on quotas rather than competence. Increasing the visibility of women leaders can alleviate the pressures of tokenism, expand their professional networks, and bolster their performance.

Building a Leadership Identity

Stepping into leadership roles necessitates women to internalise a leadership identity—a challenging feat that requires credibility establishment. Companies should foster communities where women in similar positions can exchange experiences, offer emotional support, and facilitate mutual learning.

Turning the Tide on Gender Equity

The path to gender equity demands concerted efforts:

  • Engaging in open conversations about gender bias and its repercussions, emphasising the risk management, innovation, and transformative potential lost to gender inequity.
  • Encouraging diverse leadership styles that break free from traditional stereotypes.
  • Revisiting workplace processes related to recruitment, promotion, and placements.
  • Promoting sponsorship, not just mentorship, for women leaders.
  • Aligning leadership purpose with business leadership strategy.
  • Creating “identity workspaces” through women’s leadership development programs that support leadership transitions.

McKinsey offers four essential actions for businesses to combat gender imbalance:

  1. Making gender diversity a top priority for boards and CEOs.
  2. Anchoring gender diversity strategies in a compelling business case.
  3. Challenging limiting attitudes towards women in the workplace.
  4. Implementing fact-based gender diversity strategies, tracking pay levels, attrition rates, promotions, and organisational health.

Diversity and inclusion are no longer mere HR programs; they have become central to successful business strategies. As companies move toward gender equity, built-in gender bias is dismantled, unlocking the full potential of women in leadership. With greater representation, businesses gain broader perspectives and innovative problem-solving approaches.

Diversity is the key to success—a key that unlocks the full potential of the talent pool, rather than depriving organisations of half of it. As the world grapples with complex challenges, addressing gender disparity and achieving gender equity in leadership is not just a moral imperative; it’s an economic necessity.

Sarah Babb is a highly experienced executive and organisational and leadership change specialist. Read her Bio here.

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Sarah Babb

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