CFO Community Conversation: Workplace inclusion for women starts with the people in power

CFOs share what they are doing to change the tone at the top for women inclusion in the workplace.

On 24 March, CFO South Africa hosted a CFO Community Conversation that looked at the willingness of those in power to make a change when it comes to the inclusion of women in the workplace.

Ascendis Health group CFO CJ Kujenga set the tone of the evening by exploring “the box analogy” to help the attendees become more aware of some of the factors that have an impact on the progression of women in the workplace.

“My mother used to caution me that everyone in my life will try to put me in a box that they believe I fit in,” CJ said. “Some people will have large boxes that will allow you to grow, and some will have small boxes that will confine and restrict you.”

She explained that there are four key sides to the box that people create for women: the natural order; opting out; how women are perceived as leaders; and the willingness by those with the power to make a change.

How natural is the natural order?
As part of a thesis CJ completed in 2017, she asked many people (both men and women) what a woman is. The responses primarily placed women’s influence and transformative ability as being in the home.

“Men have dominated the organisation and political leadership domain for so long that so-called leadership characteristics are usually based on typically masculine attributes,” CJ said. “This is exacerbated by the low number of women in these roles.”

She explained that this construct results in the cognitive challenge of seeing women as leaders in organisations. “There’s no historical narrative for women leading organisations, no mental model to help us navigate it and allow mental association of women as more than just the primary carers of the family and the home.”

Enabling women to lean in instead of opting out
CJ stressed that strong, understanding support structures for women shouldn’t be undervalued. “It’s such an important enabler for women’s success.”

Unfortunately, she explained that many workplace policies have not made any significant strides to change this dynamic. “The assumption that households are made of heterosexual married couples is also becoming really outdated. I’m a single mother by choice, so I don’t have the option of a partner to co-parent with me. But I really love what I do, and I believe that I am made whole by both elements – being a mother and leaning into my career.”

She said that, if we want to increase gender diversity around the table, organisations and leaders have to be thinking about creating support structures that enable women to lean in.

Women perceived as leaders
CJ explained that the starting assumption for men is that they can lead, therefore leadership qualities are further ascribed to them. “No such bolstering exists for women and I start on a negative scale. This means that every mistake I make starts counting against me.”

She said that women also experience a double bind when it comes to leadership qualities: When they display characteristics that are viewed as gender typical – like being more mothering or softer – they are “not tough or loud enough”. But when they display characteristics that are seen as male, they are labeled as too “bossy or not likeable”.

“The ability of women to be both feminine and able to execute on the tough role requirements is difficult for people to digest.”

Willingness by those with the power
The way recruitment takes place, especially at an executive leadership level, is hardly ever just an HR function. This process is usually sponsored by the board of directors and driven by CEO and CFO. Therefore, CJ explained that organisations need these leaders to be intentional about adding a critical mass of gender diversity to the decision making table. Not just increasing the number of women in the organisation, but making sure that once the organisation has appointed those women, it is creating a path that allows the women to be part of the decision making table.

Sedibelo Platinum Mines’ CFO, Elmarie Maritz, is one of the women in leadership with the willingness to make change in the mining sector, which has always been a very male-dominated industry.

“There’s a very slow turn of events for women in mining,” said Maritz.

“We’re getting women in typical roles like HR, corporate affairs and finance, but not enough in our plants and mining operations. We also have few women in management roles, which is something we are currently working on improving.”

Sedibelo Platinum Mines put together a Board committee for women in mining on 24 March, of which Elmarie will be part of. The committee will ensure that the women in the organisation are safe, secure, equal and included. “If more organisations can get that tone right at the top, we can enable our female colleagues as well as the women in our communities and give them a growth path towards management roles,” Elmarie said.

She explained that there are simple things in the workplace that need to change, and that CFOs are well-positioned to lead this change. “Positioning yourself to be seen, heard and taken seriously, will give other women the courage to do the same and bring their best themselves to the table.”

The attendees were then separated into breakout rooms to discuss what each of them have done at a leadership level to make a change in their organisation, and what they believe should be done going forward.

The attendees were then separated into breakout rooms to discuss what each of them have done at a leadership level to make a change in their organisation, and what they believe should be done going forward.