More women now take up leadership positions in firms

Meditrust Health Services CEO Pamela Makokha, Space & Style CEO Winnie Ngumi and Melvin Marsh International CEO Flora Mutahi shares their entrepreneurial journeys, wins and lessons during the Stanbic Dare to Aspire Dare to Achieve (DADA)’s 3rd-anniversary celebration breakfast meeting in Nairobi on Friday June 24th, 2022. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

In trying to enforce the usurpation of a long-lasting status quo in our mainly patriarchal societies, the catchphrase “What a man can do, a woman can do better” has become commonplace.

If a man can sit at the helm of a leading company and be entrusted with making hard decisions to guide a company through turbulence, a woman too can.

Yet the numbers of women in top leadership positions remain significantly low compared to men. Recently, Catalyst, a thought leadership company that accelerates progress for women through workplace inclusion, indicated that the share of women in senior management “is increasing incrementally”, with the proportion of women in senior management roles globally growing by 31 per cent in 2021, the highest number ever recorded.

But are these women going to the top seats of power in these companies?

“While women leaders are still more likely to be human resource directors compared to other roles, the proportion has decreased from 2020 to 2021,” said Catalyst.

“In the same time frame, the proportion of women in other leadership roles like chief executive officer (CEO), chief finance officer (CFO) and chief information officer (CIO) has increased.”

A report by Grant Thornton which is a global professional services network of independent accounting and consulting member firms, showed that in 2021, 26 per cent of all CEOs and managing directors were women, a significant rise from 15 per cent in 2019.

The Fortune Global 500 is also quoted as noting that it had an all-time high of 23 women CEOs in 2021, “including six women of colour”.

In March 2022, the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) launched the first private sector gender mainstreaming policy, aimed at offering guidance to companies and organisations seeking to optimise gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives.

“This will, within the private sector, close the gender gap that exists there. We have seven points to help us actualise this, including gender mainstreaming as part of organisational strategy at the board and the executive level,” said Kepsa Chairperson Flora Mutahi.

Tipping point

Kepsa said Kenya could increase its gross domestic product (GDP) by between 20 and 30 per cent “by investing in women, closing the gender finance gap, and encouraging female-led entrepreneurship”.

How many would go on to lead companies, or be at top positions of influence, would be identified based on how the guidelines recommended by such organisations would be followed.

Grant Thorton found that the proportion of women in senior management roles has been on a gradual rise in the last four years, and is “passing the tipping point”, which is 30 per cent, with 31 per cent of women being in such a position in 2021, was a “cause for optimism”.

“Reaching this milestone is predicted to catalyse greater gender diversity in senior management and engender lasting transformational change. When broken down regionally, we can see an exponential gain in the prevalence of countries with a proportion of women leaders exceeding this 30 per cent tipping point. This illustrates a critical mass of progression at a global level,” the firm said.

The research also indicated that globally, nine in every 10 businesses in the world had at least one woman in their senior management teams in 2021. 

"That was again an improvement from 66 per cent of companies in 2017, with last year’s figure “a continuation of the positive trend seen over the past five years”, Grant Thornton said.

Africa is the leading continent in having women in top leadership positions, with 39 per cent of senior management positions held by women. Southeast Asia (38 per cent), Latin America (36 per cent), European Union (34 per cent), North America (33 per cent) and Asia Pacific (28 per cent) follow in that order.

“Africa, consistently one of the best performing regions for female leadership, has continued its upward trajectory. Although this year’s increase is not as impressive as the 7 per cent year-on-year lift seen in 2020, over five reporting cycles, the region’s figures have improved significantly, from 29 per cent in 2017 to 39 per cent in 2021,” the report noted.

And Africa has grown to accommodate women leadership even in the political sphere. In East Africa, two of the presidents are women - Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde and Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Other regions in the continent have also shown, in the recent past, an acceptance of women’s leadership, including in Malawi, Liberia, Mauritius and the Central African Republic.

A 2020 Mercer study, where over 1, 100 organisations in more than 50 countries were studied, found that for women in leadership, the percentages got higher as the roles got less significant.

While there was only 23 per cent of them as executives, 29 per cent of senior managers were women, with 37 per cent as managers. 42 per cent were “professionals” and 47 per cent were support staff.

In Australia, men dominate senior levels of management, with Catalyst indicating that “women are less likely to reach the top levels of management”. Only 19.4 per cent of the women here were CEOs in 2021.