Earlier this year the Grant Thornton ‘Women in business: beyond policy to progress’ report revealed that only 29% of senior roles in South Africa are now filled by women. While this is a small improvement on previous findings, it’s important to note that 20% of local businesses still have no women at all in senior positions.

What will it take to get to 50%? How can we as women tackle this disparity and drive change in South Africa?

We asked some of South Africa’s most inspiring female leaders to share their thoughts, and their insider tips, with us. 

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Lohini Moodley

Lohini Moodley is a partner in McKinsey’s Johannesburg office, where she is a leader in McKinsey’s Transformation Practice, she also leads All in for Africa, and co-authored Women Matter Africa.

She told us that mentorship and sponsorship are key to women advancing in the workplace. “While both have value, mentors generally offer advice, while a sponsor is more invested in your career. A sponsor will actively advocate and create opportunities for you, by providing exposure and insight to the business, as well as access to bigger and more influential networks.”

It is important to plan where you want to be in 10 years.
Lerato Ndlovu

Lohini says that while it is crucial that women support one another, and young women have female role models as they advance their careers, they must also look for male sponsors. McKinsey’s Women Matter Africa research indicates that men occupy approximately 70% of senior management positions in Africa. 

To find yourself a sponsor, identify leaders that you admire, in an area or industry that interests you. “Your first sponsor doesn’t have to be a chairman or CEO,” she says. “They can be a line manager or executive. Think of those at management levels relevant to your position, and choose someone who inspires you.” 

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Note that sponsorship is a two-way relationship, she adds, so also consider how you can be helpful to your sponsor and demonstrate your value – you need to give them a reason to want to sponsor you. “Nurture that relationship but don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Women often wait to be invited to the table – don’t. Because only 5% of CEOs are female, this must become front and centre of the agenda for all male leaders,” Lohini says. 

Lerato Ndlovu 

Lerato Ndlovu leads the Employment Equity and Transformation practice at Jack Hammer, one of the top three executive search firms in the world. She has many years of experience placing top leaders at top firms around the world. 

Lerato says that the most important thing that a young woman just starting her career must do is to be deliberate in the job choice she makes. 

Very often young women focus only on getting the job, and are happy to be employed, she says. “It is important to plan where you want to be in 10 years. You may not have the privilege of a choice of job opportunities and have to take the one you are offered,” she says, “but this doesn’t change the exercise of planning the next 10 years and breaking it down into three to four years stints. This will keep you focused on your end goal and avoid distractions of other job offers that don’t align to your plan.”

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Lerato describes how the first 20 years of your career are an investment in time and expertise that you reap in the second 20 years of your life. Do this deliberately and consciously to reap the rewards of choice of job, company, and income when you reach midlife, she says, or even go the entrepreneurial route.

On this journey to the top you will no doubt experience sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, ambivalence, rude bosses, fake people, people ignoring you and having to do things you think are below your qualifications, she describes.

No one can ever take your education or qualifications away from you, but it does not need to be a formal qualification. Try to gain as much knowledge as you can every day.
Joanette Nagel

Even these obstacles can be overcome, Lerato says. “Sexism, racism, misogyny and homophobia have remedies in law and HR. The rest test your character and resilience and how to work in diverse environments,” she explains. 

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Joanette Nagel

Joanette Nagel, Head of Hunts (Inc. Borkums) Attorneys in Parktown and a former Legal Director at a client of the firm, also advises women with aspirations of leadership to never be intimidated by a male dominated world. 

“Find a company with a culture that you can grow in and reach your full potential,” she says. “You will spend so much of your time working and you need to make sure that you enjoy doing it – otherwise it will hinder your performance and your ultimate seniority.”

Joanette also stresses that knowledge is key. “No one can ever take your education or qualifications away from you, but it does not need to be a formal qualification. Try to gain as much knowledge as you can every day.” 

READ MORE: "I work at a company where 92% of my co-workers are black women" 

Genevieve Mannel 

Genevieve Mannel is head of BI and EKM at The Foschini Group, and one of those named on this year's 50 most inspiring South African women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) by Inspiring Fifty. 

She advises aspiring female leaders to nurture and develop your strengths as a woman. “Use this to your advantage, don’t shy away from it. Women have a natural nurturing disposition which is extremely useful in sometimes tricky corporate situations,” she says. 

You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.
Genevieve Mannel

Genevieve says it is unfortunate that the “age old boy’s club” is still quite pervasive in some industries, particularly in the IT industries which is still largely perceived as a male industry.  “Women are still remunerated much less than their male counterparts, for the same roles,” she says, “This is a trend I am actively trying to break.”

Finally, it is very important to check your crowd Mannel told us. “You are the average of the five people you spend most of your time with. Ensure they are aligned to your vision for your future,” she explained. “I love spending time with people who are have reached goals that I am aspiring to, because through the engagement, you pick up gems of advice or tips we might not have otherwise known.”

As Genevieve says, this is an exciting time to not only be a leader, but to be a woman in a leadership role. “Times are changing, and there is more and more support for us to grow within our careers. We need to ensure we hold a candle for the next generation of amazing leaders, women or men, to thrive based on their skills and abilities.” 

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