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Women in leadership in African businesses rises marginally amid the COVID-19 pandemic

  • 39% of senior management positions in African businesses are held by women, higher than global average of 31%
  • 52% of African businesses believe that new working practices as a result of COVID-19 have enabled women in business to play greater leadership roles and 97% say they are taking action to ensure the engagement and inclusion of their employees against the negative backdrop of the pandemic

The number of women holding senior leadership positions in mid-market businesses globally has hit 31% despite the pandemic affecting economies around the world. 39% of senior management positions in African businesses are held by women, and this average has steadily risen from 23% (22% globally) in 2015 to 39% (31% globally) in 2021 despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020, according to Grant Thornton’s annual Women in Business report.

Kalyanaraman Vijay, Managing Partner of Grant Thornton Botswana says: “The continued increase of women in senior roles globally and in Africa is an important milestone for businesses, but not the end goal. Those businesses that want to reap the benefits of a better gender balance, must continue to take action to enable women to realise their ambitions, through and beyond the pandemic.”

Seeing the proportion of women leaders rise to 39% in African businesses (31% globally) is encouraging, given that it passes the important 30% threshold, which research1 shows is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes. All regions surveyed except for APAC (28%) have now surpassed the crucial 30% milestone. Another encouraging finding is the types of leadership roles women are occupying. Grant Thornton’s research reveals higher numbers of women across operational C-suite roles compared to last year, with the proportion of female CEOs up 4% to 26% (6% to 26% globally), female CFOs up 7% to 43% (6% to 36% globally), and female COOs up 3% to 23% (4% to 22% globally).

Additionally, 52% of African businesses (59% globally) believe that new working practices as a result of COVID-19 have enabled women in business to play greater leadership roles. Furthermore, 78% of African businesses (69% globally) agree that in their organisations, new working practices as a result of COVID-19 will benefit women’s career trajectories long-term, despite potentially hindering factors which may be down to the flexibility that remote working offers.

 While the number of women in leadership roles has grown, questions remain over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, particularly working mothers. UN data shows that, before the pandemic, women did three times as much unpaid housework as men, and mounting evidence indicates that COVID-19 is only increasing this disparity – as well as adding the extra responsibilities of childcare and home schooling while schools are closed2.

Kalyanaraman Vijay says: “Reaching 39% certainly does represent progress – having grown from 25% 15 years ago when Grant Thornton first started tracking this, but these gains can easily be lost. Reassuringly, 97% of African businesses say they are taking action to ensure the engagement and inclusion of their employees against the negative backdrop of the pandemic and with the normalisation of remote working, employers are becoming ever more flexible about how, where and when employees do their jobs. Now more than ever, businesses need to stay focused on what is enabling women to progress to leadership positions, so that women move forward rather than back as a result of the global pandemic.”

1 Dahlerup, D. (2006). The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass. Politics & Gender, 2(4), 511-522. doi:10.1017/S1743923X0624114X

2 UN Women, Nov 2020

Read our report to find out more.