Focus on Women at the Top in Africa

The strategy consulting firm McKinsey has launched the latest addition to its Women Matter series, now looking at the African continent. The study covers 14 countries, 55 companies and 35 senior women. It includes both surprising and expected results.

In a few areas, African numbers are actually exceeding global averages. This might be surprising to some experts when thinking about Gender diversity. In fact, Africa has more women in corporate executive committee, CEO and board roles than the average worldwide, the analysis show. Like in other world regions, numbers vary by industry and sub region and are lowest in sectors that traditionally rely on men in the workforces (e.g. heavy industry).

Also in the political environment, the report has positive numbers to show. The number of women in parliaments has almost doubled over the past 15 years and also female representation in the cabinets analysed has grown fivefold in 35 years. Also in this field, numbers vary by country or country clusters: Southern and East Africa tend to show higher numbers than the North or the West of the continent. Overall, the numbers are above the global average, which is attributed to a large part to targets for women’s representation.

In both the private and the public sectors, African women who make it to senior positions tend to hold softer roles (HR, welfare) rather than line or business roles – which is quite similar to most other world regions.

Both Business Case and room for improvement confirmed

Also for Africa, McKinsey argues that companies with a better gender balance deliver better business results, measured by EBIT margin deviation from Industry average (data from 290 companies). The report shows numbers for women on boards as well as women on Executive Committees (where they have more direct influence). McKinsey admits that their analysis does not imply a causation. A larger amount of data would have to be analysed and statistical tests would need to be applied in order to allow for a more robust conclusion.

Regarding female representation in senior management (top level plus direct reports), 55 companies from 14 countries provided data. These figures vary from 9% in Heavy Industry to 39% in Pharma and showing an average of 29%. However, data from 210 publicly listed African companies (the bigger picture) show an African average of 9%. This means that the McKinsey sample is not representative of the larger African picture.

The report shows a leaking pipeline of women on their way up the corporate levels – a phenomenon that exists in all world regions. However, data from the sample of 55 African companies show a smaller leakage than in the US or China – but data from the latter are not specified in the report.

Lessons Learned from Successful Women

The researchers sought anecdotal insight from 35 female leaders from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Gabon, Senegal, and Morocco. Their recommendations echo a lot of what top women in other countries or regions reported. African female role models also say they had to perform better than their male colleagues to get similar promotions. Also the theme of persistence in pursuing career goals was found here as elsewhere in the world. Two other aspects reflect how also women in Africa have to apply what was traditionally seen male strategies to be successful. Specifically risk-taking and a readiness to go through conflict was reported as well as the need for supporters.

Key areas to address

When it comes to main obstacles to gender diversity in Africa, the report becomes more specific. The authors conclude that gender was not taken seriously enough by corporate leaders – based on their analysis. Also, they make the point that the barriers were not understood well enough in the organisational environments and that (hence?) programmes were not addressing the right issues. The latter points might sound quite familiar even to many Western experts – for too long, work-life-balance and self-marketing was (and often still is) seen as a key aspect to be addressed by gender diversity policies and programmes ‘supporting women’ in the West.