Home » Challenges, opportunities & strategies for women in corporate leadership

Challenges, opportunities & strategies for women in corporate leadership

by Tia

The path to the top for female leaders in South Africa is often strewn with obstacles. Although much progress has been made, gender bias and stereotypes still prevail. The balancing act between professional aspirations and personal commitments further complicates women’s ascent, often forcing talented women to trade career milestones for familial responsibilities.

“Networking, a crucial rung on the corporate ladder, remains elusive due to the entrenched boys’ club culture in many sectors, limiting access to the informal gatherings where essential decisions are made. The need for mentors and sponsors in senior positions exacerbates this isolation, leaving many women to navigate the corporate maze without a compass,” says labour expert Dr Linda Meyer, MD, at The Independent Institute of Education’s Rosebank College.

“And the wage gap remains an unfortunate reality, with women still often earning less than their male counterparts for the same roles and responsibilities. This disparity undermines their financial autonomy and diminishes their perceived value within the organisation.

“Moreover, the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles creates a vacuum of role models, making the journey seem lonelier and the destination further out of reach.”

Time for women to redefine leadership

Dr Meyer says that although historic challenges continue to prevail, organisational shifts are taking place that provide an opportunity for women to redefine leadership.

“The corporate landscape is gradually transforming, with organisations increasingly acknowledging the value of diversity and inclusion. This shift paves the way for policies and practices that level the playing field, offering women a platform to showcase their leadership prowess,” she says.

“The rise of women-focused networks and support groups also provides a sanctuary for sharing experiences, strategies, and success stories, creating unprecedented opportunities for momentum. Additionally, the increase in successful female leaders across various industries serves as a beacon of hope.”

Finally, flexible work arrangements, once a rarity, have become a staple in the modern workplace, increasingly offering women the ability to balance their career aspirations with personal commitments.

Dr Meyer says that although challenges remain, the environment is ripe for women to chart their way to the top.

“Women pursuing leadership roles must carve their niches, crafting personal brands that resonate with their unique value propositions. Seeking out mentors and sponsors, building supportive networks, and advocating for oneself become indispensable tools in their arsenal.”

It is also essential that advocacy continues in support of policy changes, she says.

“The onus also falls on organisations to cultivate an environment where diversity thrives, biases are dismantled, and opportunities are equitable. Championing diversity and inclusion initiatives, advocating for policy changes, and fostering a culture of mentorship can amplify the impact of women leaders, paving the way for a more inclusive corporate landscape.

“Increased advocacy for gender equality and policy changes, such as equal pay legislation and parental leave policies, are creating a more level playing field for women in the corporate world.  However, it is essential to follow through on these wins, to ensure the promises on paper match the implementation in reality.”

To make hay while the sun shines during this period of opportunity for female leaders, Dr Meyer, therefore, advises women reaching for the top to:

Develop a personal brand that articulates your unique value proposition and leadership style.

Seek out mentors and sponsors, actively cultivating relationships with individuals who can provide guidance and advocate for your career advancement.

Build a supportive network comprised of a diverse network of colleagues, peers, and mentors who support your growth and development.

Continue learning and developing by investing in your professional development through continuous learning, skill acquisition, and leadership training.

Speak up and advocate for yourself by not being shy about showcasing your achievements and being vocal about your aspirations and the contributions you can make in more senior roles.

Champion diversity and inclusion by using your position to advocate for more inclusive policies and practices within your organisation, benefiting not just women but all underrepresented groups.

“Addressing lingering challenges and leveraging available opportunities requires a multifaceted approach, including personal initiative, organisational support, and broader societal changes. But for women ready to begin their path towards senior leadership, today’s environment provides fertile ground for realising their vision.”

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