Gender equality in the workplace 

AUTHORS | Nabeelah Daniels CA(SA) and Riyaan Davids CA(SA), both lecturers in the College of Accounting at the University of Cape Town

Women possess numerous qualities that are essential to the success of the workplace, including their empathetic and caring nature.

However, regardless of the efforts taken to celebrate women and their role in the workplace and society, there is still a significant gap in equality among men and women in terms of pay and rank.

The COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt caused a significant shift in the corporate world, but it has also revealed that there something needs to be said and done about the value of gender equality in the future. The pandemic has highlighted that women are as capable leaders as men, if not better, as it seems that the countries that have responded best to the pandemic are the ones led by women. There is one important lesson that we should note from this crisis: to begin to reimagine women, at all levels, as capable leaders.

Gender equality in South Africa

Gender equality and women’s empowerment has received much attention in the South African workforce, with concerted efforts being made to bridge the gender inequality gap. However, a lag remains between women and their male counterparts. Research has found that South African women are more ambitious than men when entering the workforce but despite women starting their careers motivated, men are still more likely to be successful in terms of pay and rank.

South Africa scores poorly when it comes to the number of women in executive positions. Women in South Africa have been experiencing gender-based discrimination for many years, especially when they are striving towards executive positions. Roughly 68% of all senior management positions are held by men. Women make up 51% of the South African population, but only 20,7% of board members on JSE-listed companies are female, while a significant proportion of JSE-listed companies have no female board representation at all. The absence of female executive directors indicates that there may not be enough female senior managers in South African companies. Over a third of South African women have expressed that their gender and parental responsibilities are holding them back from progressing in their careers. It’s clear that there is work to be done to equalise the gender disparity in the top tier of business leadership.

An important question that we should be asking ourselves is that since women are as capable and qualified as men, why does the gap in gender representation still exist? Is it because women are perceived as less capable than men? Is it due to the multiple roles that a woman holds – wife, mother, and businesswoman? Or, simply, is it because leadership positions are usually taken up when one is older, and this is usually the time when a woman finds herself ‘trapped’ in trying to balance these numerous roles?

Gender equality in the accounting profession

Why should we be interested in the accounting profession specifically? In 2016 it was found that over 75% of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) had chief financial officers or financial directors that held the CA(SA) designation. Owing to the important role that young CAs(SA) play in shaping the business landscape, it is important for companies to understand what drives their level of job satisfaction. It would be of particular interest to note what female CAs(SA) are currently experiencing. Women hold a lot of the skills within accounting firms and it’s vital that companies focus on retaining female employees in order to maintain their competitive advantage in the future.

It is of the utmost importance for companies to maintain gender diversity, and it would be highly beneficial for organisations to understand whether their female CA(SA) employees are less satisfied than their male counterparts. A survey was conducted among CAs(SA) in South Africa between the ages of 25 and 35 years to determine whether there is a difference in job satisfaction levels between males and females. Over 950 responses were received of which 54% were female, 46% were male, 53% were married, 27% single and 19% in a serious relationship. The more equal the level of job satisfaction, the better indication we have of gender equality levels within the workplace.

Overall, it was found that there was no significant difference in job satisfaction levels between male and female CAs(SA) in this age category. This is significant, as it points to greater gender equality in the workplace among newly qualified CAs(SA). On analysis of the factors influencing overall job satisfaction levels, no differences were found between the two gender groups in their satisfaction regarding remuneration, flexibility, frequency of performing tasks that assist in career development, hours spent doing work, and the meaningfulness of work. The two factors where males were significantly more satisfied than females were how they felt in terms of promotion opportunities and being challenged at work.

On analysis of the results, it was found that males earned higher salaries than females, even though they worked similar hours. This observation was surprising, as one would expect females to have a lower level of satisfaction with the remuneration factor compared to males. However, the results showed similar satisfaction scores with regard to remuneration.

The conclusion drawn was that males tended to occupy more senior positions within organisations resulting in them performing more complex, challenging tasks, and earning higher salaries. This also is the reason for males being more satisfied with their promotion opportunities compared to females. In order to improve job satisfaction and retention levels of female employees, employers should therefore focus on improving promotion opportunities as well as provide a platform to engage in challenging work.

Apart from the survey conducted, it seems women are well represented within the CA profession. For example, the SAICA board is predominantly female with 70% of the board members being female, and Ms Tsakini Maluleke, the chairman of SAICA’s board, is the first woman to hold the executive position of Auditor-General of South Africa in the organisation’s 103-year history. She is a respected and well-established business leader with a wealth of experience who believes that female leaders bring a different set of leadership competencies and attributes that can complement their male counterparts. She has encouraged her fellow female CAs(SA) to rise to the challenge of providing the world with the brand of leadership it so desperately needs.

Where to next?

While it is clear that South Africa is moving in a positive direction regarding gender equality in some workplaces, it would seem that there is still a lot to be done in the workplace to bridge the gap between genders. Firms need to play their part in achieving this goal. The practical question to ask is how to fast-track female employees so that we end up with a higher percentage of females in executive positions. Below is a basic starting point of what could be implemented in companies to achieve this goal.

Short-term goals

  • Reduce the pay gap between males and females.
  • Prioritise the search for female talent by identifying female candidates for executive positions.

 Medium-term goals

  • Train, mentor and support females from the day they are appointed.
  • A ‘shadow’ system could be initiated where females shadow current employees holding executive positions. This would assist in the development of the required skills from an early stage.

Long-term goal

  • A culture shift is needed in companies in order to remove gender biases and stereotypes. This would be the most significant change of all, but it would be difficult to implement and may take some time.

As stated by Ms Tsakini Maluleke: ‘With the world becoming more uncertain and ambiguous, there is a strong need for leaders that courageously take decisive action, lean into their human instinct and lead with empathy, and inspire and inform through effective communication that is clear, honest and compassionate. These are all strengths that women often demonstrate.’