Debunking myths about board gender diversity in SA


It’s a myth that there is not a sufficient pool of women available to serve on South African boards. As of July this year, South Africa has over 17 000 female SAICA (South African Institute for Chartered Accountants) affiliated chartered accountants. In 2010 there were 24 000 females graduating with Masters Degrees, and 6 100 with PhDs. These figures have increased in 2017 to roughly 31 000 women with Masters Degrees and 10 000 with PhDs.

Over the period of 2010 to 2017 there has been consistently more women candidate attorneys registered than men. There are also a vast number of associate professors and professors. So it is not about not enough women available to serve on boards. Another myth is that all women support targets. That is not so. A lot of women want to resist this notion because they don’t want to be seen as a token appointment.

The next myth is that when targets are set, they are met. Though quotas have worked in many parts of the world, we have a system and target setting in South Africa but it is not met. It is unconstitutional in South Africa to set quotas. You can set numerical targets and with that there is a level of flexibility involved with the targets.

Another myth is that if we leave things as they are, there will be a natural increase in the numbers of women on boards. The number of women on boards in South Africa on JSE-listed companies has been driven by legislation, of which the broad-based black economic empowerment (BEE) has been one of the biggest drivers.

There is no legislation in South Africa directly obliging companies to include women on their boards of directors.  However, there are several indirect legal measures to incentivise gender diversity on boards. The King IV Report for Corporate Governance, which is applicable on a voluntary basis, works on this idea of ‘apply and explain’.

The Report recommends that the governing body should promote diversity for better decision-making and better governance. That includes gender diversity and it should set targets for race and gender representation. Our government has various commitments. We as a country have signed various international labour organisation conventions. We have also signed several protocols and this is very important because we are now held accountable against these.

Yet, we are not meeting the requirements. Why? Because we work in the networks that we know. We don’t deliberately broaden our network and meet other people to collaborate with. We also had the failed Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill, which to date has not had traction again. When you look at annual reports of companies, gender equality on boards is not really a primary concern. 

Professor Anita Bosch is the Research Chair of Women at Work at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).