The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

The female leader: Experiences from the Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa

female leaders

Complex Societal Impact Projects Requiring Tri-Sector Collaboration and Cooperation

Visible and measurable progress in advancing the status and standing of females in business school leadership is crucial to role-modelling effective gender representation. As the higher education eco-system from which leaders in society, business and politics are shaped and informed, walking the talk on the advancement of female leaders must be evident not only in our classrooms but in our organisational practices – anything less is gender-washing.

At the beginning of the year, at the 2023 EFMD Dean’s Conference in Madrid, I attended a session entitled ‘implementing strategies to attract and retain female talent in business schools’. It was hosted by business school deans who participate in the EQUAL4EUROPE initiative. As the vigorous discussion ensured, with a panel consisting entirely of males, my eyes were opened to the persistent and systemic prejudice plaguing females in academia, especially at leading business schools.

These include resistance to cite research by females (citation injustice) (Ennser-Kananen, 2019); lower numbers of female professors and associate professors; heavier female workloads (Doyle and Hind, 1998; Parlak et al., 2021) and the deflating strategies that Dr Sarah Jane Aiston has described as ‘internal silencing’ (caused by a fear of speaking out) or ‘silence by exclusion’ (a lack of representation on key decision-making committees and panels) (Aiston, 2019).

Macro and ‘micro-inequities’ (Rowe, 1990) like these have been successfully used to keep females out of the top ranks of many universities and business schools and further derail the equality, diversity, inclusion and respect (EDIR) goals espoused by business schools. Clearly, and despite making a collective commitment to gender equity as per Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5, few business school leaders practice what they preach.

Crunching the numbers on female representation

Recently, the global business school environment has seen a welcome increase in the number of female deans and females occupying senior positions. A development championed, amongst others, by Women in Business Education (WiBE) under the enthusiastic leadership of founder and CEO Lisa Leander, who is among those who correctly point out that the percentage of business schools accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is showing a rise in female deans from 17% in 2008 to 25% in 2018 (Leander and Watson, 2021) and edging up to 25.7% in 2020 (Bisoux, 2021).

Among this number are a few with whom Gordan Institute of Business Science (GIBS) is proudly associated: Caroline Roussel of IÉSEG School of Management (France), Wendy Loretto from the University of Edinburgh Business School (Scotland), Vanessa Chang of Curtin University (Australia); Wendy Costen of Smith School of Business at Queens University (Canada) and Catherine Duggan of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (South Africa).

Until she stood down in 2020, GIBS was shaped and led by Nicola Kleyn from 2015. This was a blow to the number of female deans in Africa, the same year the visionary Enase Okonedo moved on. Like Kleyn, Okonedo handed the reins of Nigeria’s Lagos Business School to a male colleague. However, it is worth noting that they both went on to bigger and better things in higher education (Hinson, 2020).

Notwithstanding the usual and expected movements in these demanding positions, the latest figure of 25.7% of female deans is a disappointing achievement for business schools because it falls short of representing the number of females in the business world, where they made up around 32% of senior management roles in 2021 – a figure which was also the highest to that date (Grant Thornton, 2022), but still far from reflecting the true gender equity long desired.

The reasons why more females are not breaking through into top jobs in business schools are systemic and include in-built institutional biases and a less aggressive stance by some female academics when it comes to putting themselves forward for consideration, as well as the fact that many females do not enter academia through standard academic paths; typically acquiring their doctorates later in life (EFMD, 2017).

These brakes to progressing up the academic leadership ladder are not dissimilar to those noted as holding females back in the corporate space, from the insidious nature of bias and sex discrimination to the pressures on females to shoulder the role of carers in society, as well as a lack of choices, networks and mentorship (AAUW, 2016).

Fortunately, this picture is changing, thanks to hard-fought awareness and active steps to address these challenges. For instance, research from Grant Thornton, released in 2022, painted an encouraging story of growing inclusivity and diversity around the world – particularly with regard to females in leadership positions.

The research does, however, highlight a profound difference between regions. While North America had 33% of leadership roles held by females in 2022, in step with the European Union, this figure was higher at 35% in Latin America, 37% in the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia, and a commendable 40% across Africa (Grant Thornton, 2022).

Effectively, Africa is pulling the global average beyond the key 30% tipping point. As the Grant Thornton researchers noted: “The global increase is largely driven by improvements in Africa and APAC [Asia-Pacific recorded 30% from 23% in 2018]. Africa represents a success story for female leaders, reaching 40% of overall senior roles. This is an increase from 39% in 2021 and a significant step up from 30% in 2018” (ibid).

While Africa exceeds the number of human resource directors and chief marketing officers compared with the other regions studied by Grant Thornton, the continent still has work to do when it comes to boosting the numbers of female chief executives. This fact tells us that businesses themselves, despite a bigger pipeline of female talent to choose from, are still reluctant to achieve effective gender equity in C-suite positions.

Our approach to females in leadership

Seeking to be an exemplar, as opposed to being a rationaliser, GIBS is committed to the advancement of females in the workplace and society as a whole. This commitment resonates deeply across South Africa, where the goal of driving racial transformation after the country’s painful history of apartheid is written into law and represents a crucial consideration when it comes to achieving ESG targets for businesses. The very process of creating a more just and equitable South Africa as measured by race has, in turn, supported the acceleration of female leaders in corporate roles, government and civil society.

South Africa holds a joint second position with Australia in the Global Government Forum’s G20 ranking, just behind Canada, for gender parity in the public service sector (Hunt, 2022). South Africa is now reaching a figure of 48.6% of senior public service positions being held by females – this means the country is just 1.4 percentage points from reaching gender parity in this area.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa has also seen the number of female Members of Parliament rise from just 2.7% to around 45% (Hunt, 2022), while 32% of Supreme Court of Appeal judges are women, 31% of solicitors and 30% of the country’s ambassadors (Gwaelane, 2020).

Yet, in business and despite good progress in the boardrooms and C-suite in general, South Africa boasts only three female CEOs of a top 40 listed company, in spite of an increasing number of women holding senior corporate positions. While this stark discrepancy in top businesses should keep us focused on the job at hand, it is also important to acknowledge that South Africa has done extremely well when it comes to advancing EDIR, particularly for females and previously disadvantaged persons. The GIBS story, in turn, is very much in line with this success in celebration of female leaders.

Breaking this assertion down into numbers, GIBS is proud that its female faculty consists of 19 of the 35 core faculty positions at our business school – or 54%. Our four major research communities are all led by female professors. In the case of the African Markets and Management research community, Helena Barnard, a respected international business scholar, has the reins.

Kerrin Myres, who is a shining light in the field of social entrepreneurship, leads Entrepreneurship in Africa. Leadership and Performance in Africa is chaired by irrepressible scholar Caren Scheepers. While Charlene Lew, a rising scholar in decision-making, chairs our Ethical Business in Complex Contexts research community, which works closely with the GIBS Centre for Business Ethics (CfBE), which relies on Mollie Painter, an extraordinary professor at GIBS and full professor at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. Many will know Painter for her body of work on business ethics. Some might argue that GIBS is overburdening female faculty, paradoxically curtailing their academic career. The facts tell a different story. These colleagues are among the most productive and esteemed scholars at GIBS.

Commitment to gender representation

From knowledge creators to knowledge disseminators, 78% of GIBS academic programme leads are female (either full, associate or assistant professors) and 50% of our faculty department heads are also female. Females also hold the majority of senior leadership positions in the school, making up 66% of the executive committee and 80% of the board of directors. Once again, they lead while shining as teachers and scholars. GIBS discourages dichotomisation and the act of dividing and polarising and instead encourages dilemma reconciliation.

GIBS’ success, as reflected in the figure below, is a function of safe spaces that are deliberately created for females to thrive. These safe spaces have resulted in healthy demographic outcomes, like 54% of faculty who are female, of which 57% are full professors, and 43% are associate professors. We are proud of the continuous work to earn our reputation as a champion for female leadership in the field of business education. As the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass said, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.”

Aradhna Krishna and Yesim Orhun, writing in Harvard Business Review in 2020, strongly championed the utilisation of female instructors, faculty and role models as “a possible silver bullet to closing the academic performance gap” since female faculty increase “female students’ interest and performance expectations in quantitative courses and are viewed as role models” (Krishna and Orhun, 2020).

Therefore, logic would dictate that walking the talk when it comes to representation in business schools will automatically attract more female students, who in turn will go on to advance in corporate positions around the world and break through the glass ceiling. This has certainly been true of the GIBS experience.

At GIBS, we believe that female students are drawn to a way of learning and mutual support nurtured under a more inclusive and rigorous culture – balancing accountability with empathy.

For instance, in 2020, female students made up 45.3% of GIBS’s MBA students, rising to 46.8% in 2023. Postgraduate diploma senior management female students, equivalent to a Master of Science in other jurisdictions, leapt from 40% in 2020 to 49.4% in 2023, with a postgraduate diploma for mid-level management female students rising from 48.8% in 2020 to 58.8% in 2023, a slight retreat from a high of 63% in 2022.

While overall female students currently make up 51% of the GIBS student body, there is still progress to be made when it comes to doctoral enrolments (which stand at 41.6% in 2023) and the research-based Master of Philosophy numbers, which dropped off from 51% in 2022 to 41.1% in 2023.

Our place in society

These numbers tell a positive story, but they are not the goal. They are an outcome of several interventions and investments undertaken over time by successive leadership teams at GIBS. Therefore, they do not reflect leadership success but cultural success instead.

As we listen to this data, we are less concerned with what it is screaming at us but more concerned with the whispers that are leading us to fine-tune and accelerate our efforts to support and encourage female leadership in business schools to streamline their career progression. In part, this requires us to have a clear, systemic view of our role in society.

Recognising that the goal of advancing female leaders in business and society is part of a system-wide realignment, over the years, GIBS has established a number of programmes, mechanisms, think tanks and social collaborations through which we partner with other stakeholders to address and shift the reality for women at a grassroots level.

With South Africa often crudely dubbed the ‘rape capital of the world’, there is no denying that the vulnerability and abuse suffered by females in South Africa is among the highest in the world, according to Statistics South Africa (Statistics SA, 2021). Furthermore, as KPMG probed in a 2014 report (KPMG 2014), the economic costs of gender-based violence impact the South African economy by around 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP annually.

The report also showed that as females increasingly improved their formal education and relative wealth, the prevalence of violence reduced, although it was still clearly in evidence. Accepting the link between deeply rooted social, cultural and systemic marginalisation of women, the GIBS Centre for Business Ethics (CfBE) works with international and local partners to address problems plaguing women in our context.

Internationally, the GIBS CfBE works with Nottingham Trent University and non-governmental bodies to undertake ongoing research into the problem of gender-based violence and make strategic inputs which can be implemented by businesses. In South Africa, the GIBS CfBE works with large retailer Woolworths to empower more than 200 of its leaders about gender-based violence using the GIBS Women’s Equality and Digital Access: Right to Expression (WE-DARE) framework.

Also, the GIBS CfBE actively ensures senior females in business and society have a strong voice in socially relevant reports and research, such as the anti-corruption focused ‘2022 Zondo for Business’ report compiled for Business Leadership South Africa.

In the report, four eminent female leaders – Tsakani Maluleke (Auditor-General SA), Nicky Newton-King (former CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange), Claudelle von Eck (former CEO of the Institute of Internal Auditors) and Ansie Ramalho (King IV project lead) – provided significant inputs, alongside Rob Rose (editor of the Financial Mail) and analyst Stuart Theobald. In so doing, these leaders are shaping business and public discourse, as well as policy.

Other examples of initiatives on women in leadership include efforts by our Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA), which, in 2022, continued its work to empower women entrepreneurs by the rolling-out of an app-based programme for approximately 3,500 female business owners in South Africa on behalf of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women (Gordon Institute of Business Science, 2022). This move also highlights the openness of GIBS faculty to embrace new technologies and platforms, which allow us to create training and education offerings that reach broad sections of the typical GIBS population.

Since 2020, the EDA’s Social Entrepreneurship Programme (SEP) has proved a particularly positive example of the reach and impact that can be achieved by focusing our attention on addressing female-specific issues – and, in the African context, helping black females.

Since 2020, 76 out of the 104 individuals who participated in the SEP (or 73%) were females. Of that, 76, 64- representing 61% – were black females. The reason women are increasingly attracted to a programme of this nature is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the issues and challenges female entrepreneurs face, including the difficulties balancing multiple roles across family, work and personal development.

Our contribution to pedagogy and scholarship

Following feedback from each of the peer-review teams from AACSB, AMBA, and EQUIS, which visited us during the COVID-19 era, we at GIBS made a decision as an Africa-based business school to ensure that our research strategy and agenda were firmly aligned with the needs of our continent. As such, we honed our output to focus on four pillars: African markets and management, entrepreneurship in Africa, leadership and performance in Africa and ethical business in complex contexts.

While Africa is our focus and our guide, much of our published research has relevance for other emerging markets. This is evident when considering a peer-reviewed business case published by Emerald in 2022 by two GIBS academics, Amy Moore and Dr Tracey Toefy. Mitti Café: Enabling Disability Inclusion in India through Scalable Business Model (Moore and Toefy, 2022) offers sustainability and social inclusion insights for social entrepreneurs and businesses in India and abroad, and fittingly went on to win in The Case for Women category at the 2021 Emerald case-writing competition. Moore joined the editorial board for Emerald Publishing Emerging Markets Case Studies as an associate editor in January 2023.

Many of GIBS’s research outputs in recent years are thanks to the likes of internationally renowned scholars like Professor Helena Banard and Professor Anastacia Mamabolo. Barnard and Mamabolo won the 2022 Best Paper Award and Best Phenomenon-Based Paper Award from the Journal of World Business for their article titled, On Religion as an Institution in International Business: Executive’ Lived Experiences in Four African Countries.

The most prolific, however, is Professor Scheepers, who won the Outstanding Contribution to the Case Method title at the European Case Centre’s 30th Awards in 2020. Scheepers became the fourth female winner in the ten years this global award has been bestowed. It was also only the second win for an African institution in the history of the awards (University of Pretoria, 2020a).

Scheepers, who frequently co-authors with other female faculty members and students, also makes a point of featuring female protagonists and actors in her case studies and, due to her field of study in organisational behaviour and development and female entrepreneurship, she publishes academic articles that focus on gender issues.

Recently, this has included a 2021 case published by Ivey Publishing by Scheepers and GIBS junior faculty, Motshedisi Mathibe, which profiles a female entrepreneur in the male-dominated retail fuel sector (Scheepers and Mathibe, 2021). In 2019 and 2020, respectively, Scheepers teamed up with Tracey Toefy to create another award-winning case on a female-led domestic award-winning start-up, SweepSouth South Africa (University of Pretoria, 2020b). Also, with GIBS doctoral candidate Philandra Govender co-authored a case to probe the buyout offer dilemma facing the female founder of Candi&Co, South Africa’s first ethnic hair salon franchise (Scheepers and Govender, 2022).

Mindful of the small permanent faculty size at GIBS, of the 57 journal articles published in 2022 by GIBS, five were authored solely by females, and 20 were co-authored with male colleagues. This compares to 53 journal articles published in 2018, of which only two were authored by females and 24 were co-authored.

When it comes to case studies, of the 11 published in 2022, five were by females alone and a further five by teams of females and males. Of the book chapters contributed in 2022 – a total of 14 – three were written by females alone, and ten were co-authored by females. The collective use of these artefacts in our classrooms, as well as countless other classrooms the world over, has a direct impact on our students and broader stakeholders.

In conclusion: Closing the loop

These efforts allow us to take great pride in celebrating our female alumni who are making a positive contribution to society. These include, but are not limited to, Stacey Brewer (MBA class of 2011), Tashmia Ismail-Saville (MBA class of 2010), Raisibe Morathi (MPhil Corporate Strategy class of 2020), and Anastacia Mamabolo (PhD class of 2013). Brewer is the founder and CEO of SPARK Schools, which was inspired by her MBA studies, with a network of 24 schools serving 15,000 students.

Ismail-Saville is the founder and former CEO of the Youth Employment Service (YES), which has created over 100,000 jobs since its founding and is now influencing youth-led innovation in Canada, first through the MaRS urban innovation hub and, more recently, as a board member of innovation catalyst Mitacs. Morathi is Chief Financial Officer of Vodacom Group, which connects tens of millions of people through mobile technology, the most impactful of which is its mPesa business in East Africa.

Mamabolo is an associate professor and National Research Foundation-rated researcher, and she recently won the South African Women in Science Awards (SAWiSA) Distinguished Young Women Researchers in Humanities and Social Sciences, an award of the South African National Government Department of Science and Technology. These women are but a drop in the ocean of countless inspiring stories of the 3,081 (42%) female alumni since GIBS’ founding in 2000, when the numbers of female students was appreciably lower. They are a timely reminder of why we make the choices we do.

Responding to the ever-changing dynamics of doing business in a changing world is a daunting task for business schools. There are no easy choices. The fact is that organisations around the world are losing female leaders at unprecedented rates since the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, as female leaders who previously broke through the glass ceiling are now facing the glass cliff (Groeneveld et al., 2020).

This situation clearly highlights a disconnect between what most business schools teach and what the evolving market requires. Without widespread organisational and societal change – which truly embraces EDIR in all its forms – then the few females who do make it to the top are faced with the daunting task of fighting against a rising tsunami of societal challenges. Our role as business schools must be to create a groundswell of female leaders who can fundamentally drive EDIR across society.

This, in turn, will lead to greater female ownership and management, underscoring collective commitments to SDG 5, gender equality. The microcosm we create within our business schools today will ultimately be reflected in the quality and diversity of our societies in the future. It is best we tread purposefully, with clear intent and urgency.

The Female Leader: Experiences from the Gordon Institute of Business Science, South Africa


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Professor Morris Mthombeni is Dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg, South Africa; the top-ranked African business school for executive education. He has a wealth of experience in the corporate world, as an active researcher at the intersection of corporate governance and strategy, and is active in influencing the evolution of the business education sector towards responsible business and management education.

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