South Africa: Killer career tips for women

More women are moving into higher-level positions. But the rate of advancement is slow, and halfway up the corporate ladder women tend to fall behind their male colleagues.

“It’s time for organisations and women themselves to reverse the trend,” says Sandra Burmeister, CEO of the Landelahni Recruitment Group.

Women have made strides in all kinds of careers. They include Christine Lagarde, first female head of the International Monetary Fund, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, newly-elected head of the African Union.

South Africa has produced a myriad of influential businesswomen with Maria Ramos, CEO of Absa, and Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, CEO of ArcelorMittal, both making the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women.

Nonetheless, the Grant Thornton International Business Report 2012 shows that globally only 21% of women are in senior management positions. SA does better at 28%, but only 8% of local companies have a female CEO.

“The slow progress of women as leaders tends to be based on entrenched corporate practices and outdated gender stereotypes,” says Burmeister. “As a result, men are frequently promoted on potential, while women are promoted on performance and hence advance more slowly. This can deprive the organisation of leadership talent, at a time when it is in short supply all over the world.”

Research shows that diversity of leadership generates better company performance and increased profits. Women can bring a broader set of ideas to the table, leading to more innovative workplaces and better decision making. “Women tend to practise an inclusive style of leadership and value compassion and support,” says Burmeister. “This has a positive impact on staff performance and achievements.

“In an economic crisis, women tend to come to the fore, since they are less likely than their male counterparts to take high risks. Generally less competitive, women may be less likely to show knee-jerk reactions in high-pressure situations.”

Globally, organisations ranging from the World Bank to the World Economic Forum are taking up the cause of gender equality. “There is also a great deal that organisations and women themselves can do to achieve equality in the workplace,” says Burmeister.

“Companies can embark on accelerated career programmes to assist women to make transitions into higher level positions. Moving from an operational to a strategic position is a particularly difficult transition and it can’t be rushed. Transition training and a formal coaching programme is critical, yet organisations tend to provide less rather than more support as women move up the leadership ladder.

“Actively providing opportunities for women, combined with formalised succession planning at all levels of the organisation can provide dividends. The provision of child care is an important element, as are flexible working hours, at this stage provided by only 39% of large corporates in South Africa.”

But it’s not solely up to the employer. Burmeister believes that women themselves are frequently their own worst enemies. “Women can do a great deal to push back against outdated policies and practices and make the most of opportunities in the workplace,” she says.

“Women should be more open about making their career aspirations known, and being proactive in advancing their careers. They need to put themselves forward, learn to negotiate for themselves and volunteer their opinions. They should raise their hand for new assignments and initiatives and not be afraid to get their hands dirty.

“It’s important for women to get better at building relationships. Connecting with influential people who can provide strategic advice is important in advancing your career. Build networks at the office as well as in your personal life. But keep your work and private life separate – at work and on the Internet. Never post anything on your Facebook or LinkedIn pages that you wouldn’t want your colleagues to see.

“A crucial element is finding a sponsor several levels above you who can act as a mentor, introduce you to the leadership network, recommend you for projects or promotions you may not otherwise have access to, so you can advance up the corporate ladder.

“The next step is to be confident in projecting your authority rather than wanting to be seen as ‘nice’. Be prepared to take reasonable risks and don’t miss opportunities through fear of making mistakes.

“It’s important to understand the politics of the organisation and your place in it. Women who get to the top understand how to pull the top team together and how to lobby for support.

“Finally, be resilient and tenacious. Setbacks are inevitable – but you’ve got to be steadfast in your quest if you want to reach the top.”