Business needs a shakeup and a change in consciousness.
And it’s up to you.

Women in Business and Leadership Conference

August 2019 // Johannesburg

One of the most unlikely social media legends in recent times is not a rapper or a football player or even a reality TV star, but an 86-year-old United States Supreme Court justice. Over her stellar 60-year career, culminating in her appointment to the Supreme Court bench in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was consistently one of a stark minority of women. Her law class in the 1950s numbered over 500, but included fewer than 10 women. The statistics for African Americans were even more appalling. And if you undertook a similar exercise for South Africa over that period, the skew would be even more apparent.


As her star gained its ascendancy, the Notorious RBG (as she’s become known) could have fallen into the trap of self-congratulation and self-importance; believing that her successes were due to personal brilliance and talent alone. But ladies and gentlemen, she didn’t. She recognised the power of the platform she’d been given and became a brilliant, and outspoken, advocate for women’s rights.

One of my favourite RBG quotes goes:


“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. I don’t say (the split) should be 50-50. It could be 60% men, 40% women, or the other way around. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”


Ruth made this comment back in 2009, that’s right, 10 years ago, and yet the world is still a long way from talking about 60-40 or 50-50 splits when it comes to women in business and leadership. Take, for example, current statistics from UN Women which tell us that:

  • Less than 20% of the world’s landowners are women.
  • That women make up more than two-thirds of the world’s 796 million illiterate people.
  • That just 39% of rural girls around the world attend high school.
  • That in countries like Benin and Tanzania, women work 17.4 and 14 hours more than men each week, respectively.

Such statistics do not exist in a bubble. The implications can be felt across society and in the world of business; even at board level. Last year, WDB Investment Holdings, the Institute of Directors Southern African and Korn Ferry commissioned research from the 30% Club’s Southern Africa chapter into the state of gender parity on JSE-listed boards. The result was an analysis of 267 companies, 50 of which didn’t even specifically report on gender at board level in 2017.

UN Stats

Of the 217 companies that did report on gender at board level, the assessment highlighted opportunities for 84 women to join the boards of 62 firms in the coming years. For the large part, this related to one or two women joining a board. Far from the 50-50 split that would highlight true parity. Expand this view out to the rest of Africa and, according to the African Development Bank, women hold just 12.7% of board seats in Africa’s top listed companies. In most cases a single female board member holds the fort.

For some, these figures will be taken as a sign of progress – one is better than nothing, after all. And that is true. Many will regard these women as trailblazers and role models. And they too are right. But as a woman who has served on boards for over 10 years, and whose professional mission is to see a greater groundswell of women board members, I can assure you that those women serving alone on male-dominated boards cannot hope to achieve the impact they could if even one more woman was serving alongside them. They simply won’t have the voice and the backing. And this is the same for female directors, for CEOs, for teachers, entrepreneurs, office workers and public servants. While one voice is vital – just ask the Notorious RGB – two have a harmony and three become a chorus.

When gender parity comes into play in a boardroom the entire dynamic shifts. It certainly doesn’t drown out or negatively affect the role of men in the boardroom, but it enhances their thinking and challenges stereotypes. This makes for a stronger, more robust board that is capable of making more informed decisions when it comes to capital management, to key executive choices, long-term sustainable moves and how minorities are viewed and welcomed into an organisation. In the case of women like myself, who serve on financial services boards, it means opening the door to greater access to finance by female entrepreneurs, which spurs on job creation and wealth accumulation, which trickles down to families and communities.

And yet, despite the advantages, we continue to see a dearth of women on boards and in senior leadership positions.


The reasons for this are numerous, from educational deficits and self-belief issues, to social and cultural assumptions about the role and value of women in society. These percolate up through the system, chopping capable and intelligent women off at the knees before they have even had a chance to rise.

The fact that a country like Norway – which is well advanced in its drive for gender equality – recently legislated that all listed companies must have at least 40% female representation on their boards tells you that organic evolution is simply not going to happen in the numbers, and at the speed, required to make a meaningful impact.

And this is at the ultimate level of corporate leadership, board level, where the women vying for positions are highly educated, experienced and proven leaders. But what about further down the chain where the future female leaders of tomorrow are being incubated? The situation there is even more dire.


According to Ipsos, the majority of women earn 27% less than their male colleagues. The World Economic Forum’s own research tells us that it will take 108 years (at this rate of progress) to close the gender gap, and that key future-focused professions like artificial intelligence are already 78% skewed towards men.


This means that men will determine how machines regard women and their abilities in the future; opening up the door to issues of bias – just as Google! The question is how will that affect gender parity? For some the solution is simply to push more women into these professions, but that ignores the hurdles many women have to tackle to even get a place at the table.

How too can female entrepreneurs be expected to succeed if less than 3% of all venture capital funding goes to women in an economy as advanced as that of the United States? Quartz and the World Economic Forum recently looked at 2017 figures and determined that despite women leading 17% of startups that year, they received just 2% of all venture capital funding in the States. Talk about having one hand tied behind your back.

Yes, we are making strides. Across all areas of society. But it’s not enough. And here’s why: Because until the world achieves gender parity across all spheres, humankind will continue to underperform as a species.

Gender parity matters. Gender parity matters because women, when they have the freedom to do so, think differently to men. And that’s a good thing. The world is multi-faceted and multi-cultural and supremely complex and looking at it through one lens is no longer sufficient when dealing with the complexities facing companies, countries and communities. But if women make their voices heard, the impact is notable.

Gender parity matters because women, when they have the freedom to do so, think differently to men. And that’s a good thing.

This is not just my view, while opinions are divided on the impact female board members have on a company bottom line, consider the OECD’s finding that higher levels of participation by women in the Nordic countries boosted those nations’ GDP per capita by 10% to 20% over the past 40 to 50 years. And this is not just good for women, it’s good for men, for families and for societies at large. It means flexible working hours for parents of both sexes, subsidised child care and paid parental leave for mothers and fathers. It’s not a case of reverse discrimination, it’s simple equality.

If this is a model we hope to replicate, then it behoves every man and women to advance the cause of parity by challenging inequality in all its forms, by standing up for equal treatment and by supporting one another in the bid for a fair and just society.

It also means owning up to our own prejudices and fears about a changing social order and the evolution of gender roles. Unless we are prepared to cut lose old and outdated ideas that no longer serve society then humankind will never move forward and will never attain the parity the Nordic countries show us is possible.

We faced down change once before in South Africa. Back in 1994 when we came together as citizens, faced our fears and voted for democracy. That same sense of solidarity and urgency should now be applied to the advancement of gender parity in business.

You may well query why the focus on business, and this is because it is possible to legislate meaningfully in this arena; something it is harder to do in the home or within communities. We can leverage off the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment scorecards and employment equity to give greater attention to gender parity. We can ensure that guidelines such as the JSE’s gender diversity policy at board level are enforced.

A few years ago an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review argued that if women were to participate in the economy in equal measures to that of men, they could add as much as US$28 trillion, or 26%, to the annual global GDP in 2025. Can you imagine what harnessing the power of South Africa’s women could do to steer our own economy out of the doldrums?


Given that women make up more than 52% of our population and that some 42% of households are already headed and financially supported by women, can you imagine a world in which these women were given equal opportunities and better pay? How might that impact the families they care for and their own abilities to save and spend and spur on the economy?


South Africa has no draconian restrictions on the participation of women in our labour force, but we also don’t have any specific policies designed to close the gender gap. Instead we allow entrenched social and cultural restrictions to go unchecked, undercutting the potential of more than half of the country’s active citizens and leaving precious GDP growth untapped.

We are already six decades behind the front-runners in this race for equality. And we are now lagging our own peers in terms of economic growth. The magic elixir could be, and should be, gender parity. If we can harness this potential then we can begin to climb out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into, boost GDP growth, avoid recession, create jobs, slash unemployment and pull people out of poverty.

But it requires action. Now.

This is not an issue to be discussed at length, and pondered over and debated by think-tanks. The evidence is out there. Look to Denmark, look to Canada, New Zealand and even Rwanda and Namibia for examples of economies rising in step with the economic emancipation of women.

At WDB we are also proud to say that over the more than 26 years of our existence, we have been able to demonstrate that achieving real transformation on boards is possible.  For example, on the WDB Investment Holdings portfolio of 13 companies, the average % representation of female board members is 32%, this compares to 19.1% for JSE listed companies.  The WDBIH board is all female and the top management team is also all female.  This female founded and led team has successfully built a company with assets under management of just over R6bn since 1996 and transferred over R200million to the WDB Trust which has provided micro finance, training and business support to over 200 000 rural female entrepreneurs.    Through the WDB Growth Fund, WDBIH has mobilised equity funding of close to R100m in partnership with its corporate partners and development finance institutions.  The Fund invests in growing black women and youth owned SME’s that have a social impact and are focussed on creating jobs and using technology to address social challenges.  The journey to success hasn’t been easy, we have had to confront and overcome many challenges on the way, which I will be happy to share with you later on.


It is up to each and every one of us with a voice, with the power to foster change and with the ability to challenge the status quo to do so. Change of this magnitude will never happen until both men and women embrace the importance of this mindset shift, work to raise their own consciousness and become attuned to the gender issues impacting their immediate environments.


We must all inspire a positive change in human consciousness.

Every single person in this room has the power to change the gender dynamic in South Africa. We did it in 1994 when we decided to embrace and capitalize on our differences, when we decided to follow Madiba’s example of being selfless over selfishness, when we saw abundance and opportunity for growth instead of lack and scarcity, when we chose unity over division and when we decided to see Light when everyone saw darkness.

As the former President of the United States, Barack Obama, once said: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Yes it is possible and Yes we can do it again!!  The power is in your hands.

Change starts now.

Thank you.

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