There have been several reports released highlighting the gender gap between men and women in the South African workplace, noticeably in top level management positions. While this figure is gradually improving, there is still significant room for improvement.

According to Suzy Boucher, Managing Executive of the Human Capital Institute Africa (HCI Africa) and advisory and judging partner for the 2013 DHL Rising Star Awards, a prevalent issue within South Africa’s corporate space is that while the workforce is split relatively equally between men and women, the majority of the female workforce is still managed by males.   

“In order to close this gap, the workplace needs to understand the contributory factors resulting in this phenomenon, as well as the different traits which each gender possess, and how these traits affect the performance and success of both men and women in the workplace,” says Suzy.

She says that a number of gender studies have been conducted to determine whether differences exist in leadership styles between men and women, and why these differences may exist.

“Generally the studies appear to conclude that effective modern leadership is characterised by ‘feminine’, or softer competencies such as being empowering, empathetic and transformational.  However, there is no evidence to suggest that women compare more favourably than men when assessed against these competencies in the workplace.  

“Often, it is gender stereotypes that are pervasive in society and business that are detracting women from being promoted up the leadership ladder.”

She adds that managers of both sexes should be constantly attuned to these gender differences and stereotypes in order to effectively manage across the gender divide, and provide equal opportunity for both male and female leaders to progress their careers.

Suzy points to the recently released 2012 – 2013 Commission for Employment Equity Annual Report, which revealed how the gender divide increased with the seniority of the position. It was shown that the ratio between men and women for professionally qualified positions is 57.8% and 42.2% respectively. This percentage for women decreased to 30.7% for senior management level and 19.8% for top management level.

“These results not only illustrate how male representation is still dominant in the workplace, but also  how this gap only widens as the positions become more senior.”

She adds that there are unconscious biases that underlie processes by which high potential leaders are identified and as a result, accelerated leadership development opportunities tend to favour men.

“Today women are as qualified and educated as men, which should remove the education barrier from women’s career progression. However, there is an unspoken assumption that women will always put family considerations ahead of opportunities for international leadership assignments – a critical experiential development for global leaders – and the result is a bias towards providing these opportunities to men.  Opportunities to participate in development programmes preparing leaders for higher levels are also largely skewed towards men, and the bias only grows as the level of management increases.”

Suzy says that in order for women to thrive in the workplace, it is essential for female employees, as well as managers, to be aware of how female stereotypes affect the performance and success of women in the workplace.

“It is important for women to take action and own their destiny as submitting to powerlessness is, after all, a female stereotype.  The most empowering, and liberating, thing a woman can do to take charge of her career progress, is to recognise when she is playing to the female stereotype.”

She adds that women must however tread carefully between being assertive versus being aggressive as this too can be career limiting.

Suzy says that process and methods employed to assess talented candidates who have capacity for success in the 2013 DHL Rising Stars awards was designed in such a way as to filter gender bias out of the decision making process and that similar processes should be developed in workplaces.

“By ensuring that both male and female candidates are assessed in an equitable manner, equal opportunity and empowerment is created for both women and men,” she concludes.

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