Being a Black Senior Manager in South Africa


Our Constitution and laws give women many rights. Most importantly, the Bill of Rights gives all women the right to equality. The Equality Clause says that no person may be discriminated against on a number of grounds, including their sex and gender (Section 27).

Equality between men and women is one of the most important aims of the Constitution. 

The Constitution also created a Commission on Gender Equality (CGE) to act as a watchdog to make sure that women are not discriminated against. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was also set up under the Constitution to help people who have been discriminated against. 

Laws that have been promulgated to advance gender equality in South Africa include:

  • Abortion and Sterilisation Amendment Act, No 48 of 1992.
  • Black Administration Act, No 9 of 1927.
  • The Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act 53 of 2003 
  • Constitution of the Republic of South Africa Act, No 108 of 1996. 
  • Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, No. 92 of 1996. 
  • Commission on Gender Equality Act, No 39 of 1996. 
  • Criminal Law Amendment Act, 105 of 1997.
  • Criminal Procedure Second Amendment Act, 85 of 1997. 
  • Domestic Violence Act, No 116 of 1998.
  • Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998
  • Human Rights Commission Act, No 54 of 1994.
  • Labour Relations Act, No 66 of 1995.
  • Maintenance Act, No. 99 of 1998.
  • Prevention of Family Violence Act, No 133 of 1993. 
  • Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, No 120 of 1998. 
  • Sexual Offences Act, No 23 of 1957. 

In spite of all these legislations enforcing women’s rights, women are still not represented equitably in management or treated fairly in the workplace. 

Challenges facing women in the South African workforce

The South African Constitution embodies the right to equality, equal protection and benefit before the law, and to non-discrimination. It’s also signatory to a number of protocols that aim to address inequalities, and ultimately achieve gender equality, which the state is obliged to implement. Despite this, women have not advanced as rapidly in terms of socioeconomic empowerment and gender equality. The National Development Plan 2030 (NDP), a long-term effort to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality in South Africa by 2030, identifies women as the most affected by inequality, poverty and unemployment, and strives to address this.

“Grant Thornton’s report investigated the role of both business and government policy in bringing about change. It found that globally, business policy is abundant; equal pay, paid parental leave, flexible hours and other policies are common around the world. But those countries in which businesses have the most policies in place are not necessarily the ones that demonstrate the most gender diversity. Policy alone, it seems, does not create real progress.

Most South African firms did not score favourably on a number of gender equality practices, including senior management pay linked to progress on gender diversity (14%); part-time working (39%); remote working (37%) and subsidised childcare (5%).

On the other hand, 93% of local companies said they pay men and women equally for the same roles, 88% had non-discrimination policies for recruitment, 71% offered paid parental leave and just over half (51%) offered flexible working hours.

This poses an important question: if policy is not driving more women to the top, despite widespread use, then what will?

The report highlights that the businesses who are succeeding are those whose policies and practices are rooted in a genuine conviction of the benefit of gender diversity.

Interviews conducted with business leaders around the world suggested that the businesses creating real change are those who truly believe in diversity. Their leaders recognise the advantages of gender diversity and create inclusive cultures in which a wide range of voices are listened to. This is about behavioural change rather than a checkbox exercise.” 

Lee-Anne Bac | Director | Advisory Services | Grant Thornton 

  • On a local and global scale, the gender pay gap is arguably the biggest barrier between women and career progression. Research by Accenture found that in South Africa, for every R1 a woman earns, a man earns R1.91.
  • Men and women share equal ambitions as they start their career, with roughly equal levels of achievement – though some studies suggest that women do slightly better.
  • Due to the fact that women are generally paid less for similar work, or don’t ascend to higher levels as quickly as their counterparts who are men, it’s easy to lose ambition or become disillusioned by the obstacles.
  • Research denotes that mothers are subject to a degree of gender bias that portrays them as less competent and committed. As a result, they are placed in ‘mommy-track’ jobs, characterised by fewer opportunities for career advancement and financial security.
  • You earn less when you don’t have children and are unmarried regardless of doing similar work.
  • The challenge of being a working parent, single or supported, is often overlooked by employers: women appear to be less desirable due to increased family commitments. Working moms are expected to manage the nuances of returning to work as well as be the CEO at home.

The past few years have seen a wave of advocacy for gender equality at work and the importance of women in business and leadership roles. From media coverage of the pay gap to feminist mobilisation and multimedia solidarity campaigns, there has never been greater awareness in the corporate world of the need for – and benefits of – promoting women.

With all the legislative rights we have and all the campaigning and awareness, women are still exploited and paid less.

Senior managers role in effecting change

The majority of senior executives in South Africa are men. For more than 30 years, women have been earning more Bachelor’s degrees than men. They’re asserting themselves in the workplace, negotiating salaries, asking for promotions and staying in the workforce at the same rate as men. But men are more likely to be successful. It’s the role of companies to take decisive action, which starts with treating gender diversity like the business priority it is, from setting targets to holding leaders accountable for results.

How we can ensure these changes:

  • Developing and Implementing Gender diversity strategies.
  • Reviewing Recruitment Policies: Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions.
  • Establish or review clear evaluation criteria
  • Upskilling employment equity Committees.
  • Including race and gender diversity as part of performance management targets for all managers.
  • Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management.
  • Put evaluators and managers through unconscious bias training.
  • Reviewing how we handle victimisation and the harassment of women in the workplace.
  • Educating women and men in company about rights and how to protect such rights. 

The right policies coupled with measurable action and amplified accountability are the keys to driving meaning change and achieving gender equality in the workplace.

Author avatar
Cindy Ross

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