Working Women – Their Own Worst Enemies?

The debate around the penetration of women into executive positions across public and private sector remains a healthy one, and one that it would seem no concrete solution has yet to be found.

Attending the ‘Working Women: from Talent to Leadership’ session at the World Economic Forum on Africa 2013 last week I was struck by two initial thoughts. Firstly, just how few men there were in the audience – the brave few in this session made up about 10%. Secondly, by just how passionate, vibrant and inspiring the women were. There was a diverse grouping of political and business leaders, entrepreneurs and civil society who contributed to a lively discussion.

Although there were many recommendations around frameworks, quotas, mentorship and ultimately the education of African girl child’s, I and ultimately the women of Africa, was left wanting.

According to the World Bank report on gender equality released in 2012, working women are important contributors to their families and communities, and in many cases are in fact better in business than their male counterparts. This is overlaid by the fact that, according to Therese Gearhart President, Southern Africa, Coca-Cola Company, who said research had shown that in Kenya 60% of women were doing the work receiving only 10% of the recognised income, yet giving back 90% of this to their communities.

Another panellist, Birgitta Ohlsson Minister for European Union Affairs for Sweden, painted a far rosier picture stating that in the Swedish Government there were currently more women than men, however, they were yet to have a women Prime Minister.

Ohlsson’s own appointment as Minister was a contentious one as, at the time, she was pregnant which raised questions not only around her ability to perform the job, but also to be a good mother. Her view is that thankfully, she married a feminist so she could go ahead and accept the role.

I am lucky enough to share this good fortune by having a husband who is happy to share the responsibilities at home and support me in my career. However, in Africa women who have the support I do are in the minority. With 49% of children in South Africa growing up without fathers, the ability to share the load is certainly not something most women can look to do.

Added to this, is the bizarre fact that senior women in both business and Government are not, in the majority of cases, supported by their female counterparts. This view was supported by President Joyce Banda of Malawi, who shared the fact that in a survey undertaken ahead of the previous election in that country 70% of rural women and 65% of men in senior positions would vote for her but only 35% of senior women would.

The discussion on this point was varied but essentially agreed upon by the audience who felt that senior women in their organisations felt the need to win the support of the men they worked with and potentially felt threatened by the women.

So, the challenges it would seem remain. Has progress been made, in my view absolutely yes. Ten years ago a session of this nature would have been far less robust and much, much smaller. Is there work to be done, once again absolutely yes.

In terms of taking it forward, there are three areas that we as women need to focus on:

  1. Learn to let go: of the guilt as well as the need to do and control everything
  2. Level the playing field at home: raise your sons to be the men you want to see, encourage your daughters to look beyond the ‘female orientated’ careers and get your partner involved in the household
  3. Embrace your femininity: you don’t need to act or think like a man, trust your instincts

Ultimately, each of us as women in senior positions hold the responsibility to ensure that our organisations are inclusive and accountable and that we mentor and promote the women we work with.


Penny Goodwin is a Director at FHSA