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Corporations are too male-dominated

ONE of the key barriers to women’s progress in the corporate world is the network system that is largely male-dominated.

“>It is necessary for women to break into these networks. It may be easier to break through the formal networks. However, it is more difficult to penetrate the informal networks, which are less visible and hard to identify.

It is much easier for male executives and clients to often meet at informal lunch or after-work drinking sessions and it is very difficult for women executives to penetrate or challenge them because there are no legal restrictions to such informal meetings. While women should take greater steps to penetrate exclusive networks, in my view part of the solution depends on male executives willingness to appreciate the relevance of their female counterparts in corporate governance and changing the way they relate to or interact with them.

Women executives can also copy from the existing script and form stronger networks among themselves. Of course, some women may worry that by joining all-female networks may entrench the “feminine image” that is used against them and therefore suffer further discrimination.

One way to resolve that potential problem is that the women networks must be conduits through which women can articulate a stronger voice while at the same time the women can join and participate in the male-dominated networks. Women must take steps to join those clubs and institutions where business relationships are constructed and face the reality that careers develop beyond the traditional office.

Unless women can break through those networks, structural or legal changes may never have a huge impact on their position. If they attempt to join clubs or institutions and feel discriminated, they can always resort to the law to ensure that their legal rights are protected. In my view these legal challenges are better fought through networks since individuals may either lack the financial capacity or they may fear being ostracised by the male-dominated corporate sector for challenging the system. In the USA, women’s organisations led by Margaret Burke, have been campaigning against the exclusionary policies of National Augusta, the prestigious golf institution, which hosts the US Masters Tournament.

The struggle includes challenging corporate actors that sponsor clubs, institutions or events that involve some measure of gender discrimination. The idea is that no reasonable actors will risk creating an image that it is discriminatory. In countries where consumer boycotts can be effective tools against imprudent and stubborn business, these measures may work. Similar strategies may not necessarily work in other countries where consumer activism is poor. However, women constitute a major section of the community and with better consumer education, can play a major role in assisting the position of fellow women in corporate organisations. It has been shown that in some countries, companies that do more to demonstrate the role of women in their structures reflect societal interests and build better profiles and attract better custom and financial rewards.

There is a tendency among some women’s rights organisations in Zimbabwe to focus on family and domestic-related issues. There is great focus on issues affecting the poor sections of the women’s community. However, there has also been general neglect of the issues in relation to women in the corporate sector except for a few recent efforts.

Research in some countries has shown that while they do not cry out as loud and indeed their predicament is less visible because of the façade of wealth, women executives face numerous challenges. Indeed, they are often unconscious of the challenges in their midst and tend to underestimate their difficulties because they think they have “made it” when they could do more. Arguably, they need as much assistance to realise their potential. In my view, the success of women in breaking barriers at these levels is likely to have a significant impact on the general male attitudes towards women at other broader levels of the community. To that extent, it is necessary for civil society organisations to do more for women in the corporate world even if it means that the corporate organisations have to provide financial assistance for those activities. The women executives also have to open up and realise that they have a major role to play in enhancing the role of women in corporate governance.

Good corporate governance

It is also vital to make it good corporate governance practice to include a minimum number of women on the boards of companies. This might be a recommendation made by the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE) to encourage public companies to be more positive when applying for listing. That might encourage the nomination and appointment of women as directors in corporate organisations. The lack of women on corporate boards is not because there is a lack of suitable talent.

It is a result of the entrenched dominance of men and the influence of the networks that bind them but exclude women. Therefore, more needs to be done to encourage companies to remove the glass walls and ceilings. In order to reinforce the idea, it may be necessary to require companies to include in their annual reports, specific reports on the actions that the company has taken to improve the representation of women on the board or at higher levels of management.

Companies that take positive steps may benefit by enhancing their public image while those that do not risk losing confidence of a very significant sector of the market. Civil society or business organisations can play a role through researching, disseminating and highlighting relevant information to the public. There is need for stronger and more alert watchdogs that keep corporations on their toes. Of course, there are too many socio-political problems facing people and civil society organisations these days but they should not neglect the corporate sector.

There are a number of strategies that can be adopted to encourage and to some extent compel companies to take positive policies that will see more women in structures of corporate governance. In Zimbabwe Charity Jinya was recently promoted to the top post at Barclays Bank, the first female to do so!

This should not be dismissed as affirmative action in favour of women. The fact is that there are equally skilled and experienced women but because of the barriers in the corporate sector, may never get a chance to play a role in corporate governance. Prior to independence, corporate boards were dominated by white men and with the passage of time black men have gained a lot of ground. Meanwhile, both white and black women have largely remained on the fringes of major corporations. It is not a coincidence that the common denominator is that the ones in dominant positions are men. The strategies used to uplift the black men from the fringes also ought to be used to uplift both black and white women, the majority of whom rem-ain marginalised in the corporate world.

Gender, cultural stereotypes

Of all the barriers to women’s participation at higher levels of corporate governance, the age-old gender and cultural stereotypes are the most difficult to surmount. They are too entrenched in the psyche of the participants that many unconsciously perpetuate them. Indeed, some women executives seem not to realise that they are victims of certain policies or traditions and tend to accept their position as normal. However, probably younger generations that are exposed to multiple cultures and influences can take more enlightened approaches to gender relations. In addition, having more women in positions of key organs of the company also plays a role in redefining individual perspectives on gender in the long run. The perception of women being confined to the kitchen may still be evident, but equally true is that more men are accepting that women can have a place in the corporate world. That is why those that advocate for the education of girl children ought to continue to do so vigorously to enable them to acquire the necessary skills to compete equally with their male counterparts. Laws can help to give women the ammunition they need when they face problems. However, on their own they cannot solve all the problems. Certain old beliefs and perceptions take a great deal more than the law to give way.


Across the world, most businesses are recognising the importance of women in the workplace. They remain slow in their efforts to place women at top levels of corporate governance. It is not only important to reflect the interests of society but women also bring in key natural skills and attributes that male executives do not necessarily possess. Boards have been dominated by the idea that members must think and behave the same.

Conformity is no longer the key but more important are qualities of diversity and flexibility. Businesses that realise these key issues will modernise quicker and adapt to the changes taking place both on the local and global marketplace. There are numerous barriers that stand in the way of women in the corporate world. Civil society groups can play an active role by educating women executives and creating networks for them to interact and build stronger voices. Gains in this sector are more likely to produce positive effects for gender relations in other areas.

* Alex Tawanda Magaisa is Bake & McKenzie Lecturer in Corporate & Commercial Law at the University of Nottingham. He can be contacted at alex.magaisa@nottingham.ac.uk

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