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Why white men still dominate the top echelons of South Africa’s private sector

White men still rule South Africa’s corporate landscape. Shutterstock

It is 17 years since South Africa passed legislation aimed at redressing the historical systemic discrimination against black people and women in the workplace.

The ultimate goal of the Employment Equity Act is an equitable workplace profile reflective of the demographics of the country. It was promulgated to give effect to Section 9 of the South African Constitution, which calls for substantive equality to remedy historical structural inequality. Ultimately, transformation is about creating an inclusive workplace.

But the most recent report on compliance with the law shows that white males continue to dominate top and senior management positions. The picture is relatively better in the public sector.

The good news is that there has been progress. When the act came into effect, whites held 87% of top management positions. The recent report shows a figure of 70%.

The bad news is that the pace is slow and suggests South Africa has a very long way to go before the profile at the top of companies reflects the demographics of the country.

For black women in particular the progress is dismal. A recent analysis I did, which has not yet been published, of black women’s representation on companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, indicates that if present trends continue, it is impossible to even forecast when equity might be achieved.

Subtle barriers have replaced apartheid laws

The pace is so slow that employment equity reports over the last few years read like déjà vu. Why is this? Research suggests there is not a single explanation. A complex web of factors contributes to the slow pace of transformation.

First, far too many companies have not aggressively embraced the spirit of the act and affirmative action. Most have not gone beyond merely complying with the letter of the law.

Second, changing the pace of workplace transformation requires recognition of the difficult starting point and the lingering effects of racism and oppression. Apartheid institutionalised a race and gender hierarchy that placed white men at the top of organisations. This entrenched white male privilege and domination of top positions.

Today, the legalised, overt exclusion has been replaced with subtle barriers that reproduce inequality. These barriers are reflected in the discourse about employment equity heard in some corporate boardrooms and offices. This is reflected in statements such as:

Business imperatives require certain competencies so we need to be careful.

Reverse discrimination is not the answer.

It is hard to keep them because they leave for higher salaries.

People should be employed on merit not special treatment.

Hoarding and social closure

But this kind of discourse is only part of it. The everyday practices and cultures of too many companies are not conducive to attracting, developing and retaining existing black and women talent. Organisational cultures are not neutral spaces and are typically formed and shaped by the values of the dominant group. Research has documented two particular phenomena that can slow the advancement of black people and women: opportunity hoarding and social closure.

Opportunity hoarding occurs when those in dominant positions preserve and hold on to job resources for their own group. The employment equity report reflects this. White males in top and senior management positions continue to receive preference in recruitment and promotion.

The data also show they have greater opportunities for skills development. In many companies emphasis is placed on being ‘sponsored’ by a powerful individual who promotes one’s candidacy. Being part of the preferred network also provides the necessary visibility to those who make promotion decisions.

Opportunity hoarding can result in a double-edged sword for blacks and women who, because of their small numbers, are less likely to be part of the power wielding in-group.

Social closure occurs both consciously and unconsciously and has the effect of keeping blacks and women from thriving in companies.

Social closure practices include limited access to the tacit knowledge required for a job that cannot be found in a job description. It is also reflected in organisational cultures that are alienating and non-inviting to those in the minority. One young man said to me about his experience in banking:

It hurts to see your white counterparts getting the inside story about the business but you have to basically learn it on your own.

Another manifestation of social closure is exclusion based on the presumption of incompetence. Many I encountered in my research talked about the stigmatisation of their race or gender and the inability to be valued as individuals for their knowledge and ability. Even though they may have been hired because of their skills and qualifications, those in the organisation assume they received an unfair advantage.

Crying out for leadership

Removing everyday barriers cannot be achieved through legislation alone. It requires leadership and a sense of urgency. We need leaders who commit themselves and their organisations to the spirit of the law. They should emulate and take note of the practises of companies that have made real change.

The basics of real change to achieve transformation include aggressive and accelerated development of a leadership pipeline. Succession planning should be a deliberate practice to make sure the face of top and senior management evolves. Progressive companies focus on developing and retaining a talent pipeline. And there is considerable talent in the market. The latest available figures for graduates in business and commerce show that the number of African, Coloured and Indian graduates is three times that of whites. And women graduates outnumber men.

Companies also need to pay attention to the middle levels of management. Research has shown that often this level is the most resistant to change. A manager’s performance on transformation should be a significant factor in annual performance reviews.

Transformation and employment equity have to be at the core of company priorities. Leaders who lag behind need to do what they normally do when a part of a business is not making the score - come up with a turnaround strategy. Embracing the spirit of the law requires leadership, not just compliance.

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