Twenty-three years after South Africa’s democracy, just 25% of senior management roles are occupied by women and 34% of the companies surveyed do not have a single woman in senior management. The results of the survey, outlined in the most recent Grant Thornton International Business Report, are a stark indictment of the pace of change in the country, believes Faith Khanyile, the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (Bwasa) Businesswoman of the Year in the Corporate category.
At chief executive level, the situation is even more dismaying, with the report saying women occupy only 10% of positions – who represent more than 50% of our population – who are significantly underrepresented in positions of economic influence and decision-making.
“Something is fundamentally wrong with these statistics and must be addressed. The change will require interventions by all stakeholders – starting from how men and women are socialised from a young age, changing perceptions around gender-specific roles and more deliberate policy interventions,” says Khanyile from her Women’s Development Businesses Investment Holdings (WDBIH) offices in Illovo, Joburg.
She was raised in a village outside Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and gender equality was not debatable. “I come from a family of six children (three boys and three girls), and I’m the second-born. My parents, who owned a general store, emphasised equality and the value of education to all of their children.”
There was no slacking off, because all the children were expected to help out – whether doing chores at home or helping in the family business. “From a very early age I was made to know that my gender doesn’t determine what I can or cannot do. We were all encouraged to work hard and the importance of educational excellence was instilled in us at a young age.”
With parents heavily invested in their academics, failure wasn’t an option. “(My parents) were actively involved in school governing bodies and knew most teachers, so we basically had no place to hide! We were also expected to assist at the shop after school and on weekends, so we had very few idle times.”
Her parents – strong, community-orientated role models – helped shape Khanyile’s views on women’s roles in society. “My parents continue to be involved in community development till today; my mother helps women become self-sufficient by starting their own businesses, such as small-scale farming, sewing, etc. Both my parents also taught me about the importance of sharing with those less privileged.”
A keen runner who has completed the Comrades Marathon twice, Khanyile set her sights on success at an early age. In 1986 she obtained a scholarship to study at a prestigious high school in the US. She remained in the country for her tertiary studies, graduating on the Dean’s Roll with an economics degree. She has an MBA from the Bentley Graduate School of Business in the US and attended executive leadership training at Columbia Business School in New York.
“I always wanted to be in business, I guess, because of my upbringing. I was about 22 years old when I decided that my university major was going to be economics; I think at that point I was also lured by the hype around investment banking and Wall Street. I then continued with my MBA, which I completed in 1994 and I joined Brait Capital Partners, a private equity firm in 1995.”
She’s the chief executive and founding member of the Women’s Development Businesses (WDB) – which was established in 1991 by women for poor rural women’s economic upliftment – and the WDBIH. Women’s economic empowerment and diversity in the workplace are causes close to Khanyile’s heart.
The WDB’s investment arm, a broad-based women-owned and managed business, was established in 1996 to provide a sustainable source of income for the WDB Trust, which has benefited close to 200000 people in rural KZN, Limpopo, the Free State and Mpumalanga. She also serves on the JSE-listed boards of Discovery, Safari RSA Investments, Seed Engine (a supporter and funder of SMMEs), and International Housing Solutions, an unlisted private equity fund.
The WDBIH, which drives women’s advancement within their investments, serves on the boards of strategic investments such as Discovery, FirstRand, Assupol and Tsebo Solutions Group, where they promote women’s representation at senior and executive levels. “We currently manage a portfolio of 17 investments with total assets under management of R6billion and we have repatriated approximately R200million of dividends to the WDB Trust.”
Besides investing in women, Khanyile’s WDB supports a primary school in KZN near her village. “We sponsor English literacy facilitators through an NGO that works to improve English literacy in previously disadvantaged schools. The facilitators provide teacher training as well as teach English to grades one to seven. The children that excel get an opportunity to receive a high school scholarship sponsored by a top asset management company.”
The fact that women are “disappearing” from the path to senior leadership – despite having the same levels of aspiration as men at the beginning of their careers – is of huge concern to her. The Grant Thornton study underscored the fact that the number of women in senior or executive positions has either plateaued or declined in the past decade – across the globe.
“Some of the key reasons are that as women’s lives change once they start having families, they do not get the kind of support and flexibility from their workplaces that would encourage them to either return to work or attain the family-work balance”, she says.
Having to choose between a career and family is not only unfortunate, but it also means companies and economies lose out on untapped female talent. “What needs to happen is a change in the corporate cultures and mind-set among the boards of these companies as the tone is set at the top.
“We need boards to actively promote the retention and advancement of women by creating the right environment for women to continue to contribute even after they have had children. The advent of technology which allows people to work from remote locations should enable such changes. Sustainable change will only happen if leaders are made to account for women’s advancement and empowerment.”
At a corporate level, that means culture and mindsets need to change: boards of directors must take accountability for promoting gender diversity and retention of top female talent, she believes, adding high-potential women candidates must be sponsored to give them an equal chance to grow and be promoted. “Those women leaders who have made it must become advocates for women’s advancement by promoting and demanding real transformation in the boardrooms.”
The Businesswoman of the Year nod is wonderful recognition from her peers, which Khanyile hopes will inspire others to start their own businesses – and to see what’s possible to create significant business from “almost nothing”. “I am grateful and humbled to have received this recognition and the award has given me renewed energy to keep pushing harder for positive change and impact.”
Khanyile, who has been in business for more than 18 years, admits patience hasn’t been her virtue. “I used to be impatient with myself and everyone else – my husband, my children, my team/colleagues, my friends, etc. I wasn’t a good listener either. With the help of a great coach and many moments of self-introspection and working on myself, I think I am definitely less impatient now.”
Patience and listening might have come with maturity, but Khanyile’s not in it for herself. “I am always stretching myself to do much more, both at personal and professional levels.
“As I have grown older I have done a lot of introspection to find my purpose, and I have come to the realisation that I get personal fulfilment by being of service to others and not necessarily by accumulating physical things for myself alone. I am extremely energised by young people as well, I mentor many young men and women inside and outside my company as I believe I have a responsibility to lift as I rise – and I love learning from these young minds.”