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Breaking the invisible barrier: strategies to shatter the double-glazed glass ceiling

Written by Staff Writer

September 5, 2023

By Raine St.Claire

Breaking the barrier that limits female CFOs demands a comprehensive strategy. This encompasses a reevaluation of leadership succession strategy, the adoption of flexible work arrangements, and the proactive mitigation of unconscious bias. Businesses that undertake these measures may not only advance gender parity but also potentially boost their financial performance, demonstrate greater social responsibility, and elevate the quality of customer interactions.

Drawing upon the findings presented in the 2022 Executive Directors Report by Price Cooper Waterhouse (PwC), there has been a slight increase in female representation within the JSE executive ranks, with a rise from 13% to 15% compared to the previous year. Currently, women hold 22% of the highly sought-after CFO roles. However, despite the appointment of 208 new executives during the period from January 2020 to 2022, only 52 (25%)  of these appointments were women.

In a comparative perspective, the situation in the United Kingdom appears somewhat more favourable, where only 15 out of the top 100 listed British companies have women serving as CFOs. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that companies that fail to shatter the metaphorical “glass ceiling” may inadvertently hinder their own bottom line, as research highlighted by the Harvard Business Review indicates that greater gender diversity in leadership correlates with enhanced profitability, heightened social responsibility, and improved customer experiences.

The gender pay gap issue in South Africa is particularly pronounced, with a median pay gap ranging from 23 to 35%, a stark contrast to the global average of 20.2% as reported in the PwC study. Large listed companies in South Africa exhibit a median pay gap of 32%, wherein women in the upper quartile receive compensation equivalent to only about half of their male counterparts. Notably, this challenge extends beyond South Africa, as Bloomberg reported that the gender pay gap among top S&P 500 companies reached its widest point since 2012.

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In light of these sobering statistics, it becomes imperative to delve into potential strategies that companies can adopt to ameliorate these disparities and overcome deeply entrenched gender bias:

1.Talent development strategy

The PwC study underscores the importance of embracing succession planning as a strategic approach to addressing the gender gap. However, it necessitates a paradigm shift in how promising female talent is identified. Frequently, high-performing women, particularly those hailing from underrepresented groups, remain overlooked for leadership positions due to disparities in their leadership styles. To combat this, companies should transparently articulate their succession processes, fostering an environment where high-performing women, irrespective of their backgrounds, are encouraged to participate.

  1. Fostering support for flexible work environments

It is crucial to recognise that women frequently shoulder the primary caregiving responsibilities in their households. Reports from both HeForShe and IBM emphasise the significance of normalising flexible work arrangements. By affording employees the flexibility to tailor their workdays to their specific needs, organisations can benefit from increased productivity, while simultaneously challenging the prevailing stereotype that women work fewer hours than their male counterparts.

  1. Cultivating a genuinely inclusive work culture

While numerous companies claim to be addressing gender bias and championing inclusivity, the HeForShe report identifies unconscious bias as a formidable barrier. It is imperative that senior leaders, who are predominantly male, acknowledge and actively combat gender bias within their organisations. The IBM report puts forward the notion of adopting best practices from “First Mover” organisations, comprising the 12% of companies surveyed that exhibit higher percentages of women in leadership roles. This entails senior leadership championing gender diversity as a strategic priority, consistently challenging gender-biassed behaviours and language, and instituting clear metrics to hold senior management accountable for gender equality.


HeForShe is a global movement which collaborates with leaders who make tangible commitments towards accelerating gender equality.

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