I was having an engaging Zoom chat about financial inclusion last week with a senior female executive when we were interrupted by her charming toddler who had other priorities. After some on-screen introductions and my poor attempt to entertain her child, she shared a personal reflection. Despite her partner being in an adjacent room, the little one tended to knock on her door frequently.
As we are now seeing in the data, the pandemic’s effect has added to the pressures experienced by women. Often women have had to pick up more household chores and childcare duties, and many have had to face unemployment as their jobs are 1.8x more vulnerable as they tend to work in sectors that are hardest hit by the economic downturn such as retail, restaurants etc. According to the UN Women, the pandemic risked turning back the clock on gender equality by 25 years.
But, if we collectively activate the power of women’s contribution in Africa, and encourage them to reach their potential, companies log increased performance, societies become more productive, and economies thrive. In fact, Africa could add $316 billion or 10% to GDP by 2025 if each country makes advances in women’s equality to match the country in the region that has achieved the most progress towards parity (McKinsey 2019).
Amidst recovery, we now have a chance to hit the reset button in all industries – across the board, and across boards. It is time to ask ourselves if we have the balance that Africa needs – and prepare to do what it takes to get there. It will require collective action from corporates, governments, NGOs and communities to make it happen. There is much work to do. Gender inequality in work and society loom large, and interventions are critical.
Opportunities to Advance Gender Equality
Unleashing potential and unblocking much needed growth can be actioned across three priority areas: youth, women entrepreneurs and women in the workplace.
Youth – Africa is home to 19 of 20 of the world’s youngest populations which should present a tailwind of productivity opportunity. However, with youth (15 – 24 years old) unemployment as high as 63.2% in countries like South Africa there is an urgent need to align academic and technical skills with employment realities. Encouraging girls to participate in Science Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects is key to develop critical 21st century skills girls need for their studies and career success. Bringing more female youth into technology fields and achieving gender parity will only make companies stronger and products more relevant to women as customers.
Women entrepreneurs – According to the 2020 Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs, Africa has the world’s top three countries when it comes to women entrepreneurs (as a percentage): Uganda (39.6%), Botswana (38.5%) and Ghana (36.5%). Despite some positive trends, the report also notes the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women entrepreneurs around the world, with 87% saying they have been adversely affected. Overrepresentation in sectors hardest hit by the economic downturn, the pronounced digital gender gap in an increasingly virtual world, and the mounting pressures of childcare responsibilities are only a few factors that have left women particularly vulnerable. Despite the obvious challenges, the report highlights a number of opportunities for women in the COVID-19 era, particularly in online shopping and digital commerce. As a non-exec board member of Junior Achievement South Africa – a non-profit organisation that is playing its part in preparing the youth for the 21st century through entrepreneurial training and financial literacy programmes – I have seen how versatile and resilient women entrepreneurs can be in the face of adversity. Shortly after the pandemic started, I had the chance to mentor a woman who pivoted her fashion business to produce face masks and set up an online store. Ensuring access to technology or digital solutions, affordable data and modern trade resources as well as business training will empower more women to succeed in business.
Women in the workplace – While Africa has above average board representation of women at 25% (McKinsey 2019) compared to the global average, it lags in executive committee positions and women coming into middle management positions. Gender equality in the workplace requires an adjustment by all of us if it is going to become a reality in the near term. At Mastercard, we have grown our female workforce across Africa by 370% over the last 5 years and across the Middle East and Africa, our team is 42% female. While there is still room for improvement, we have made meaningful interventions:
We closed the gender pay gap to ensure that women earn $1 for every $1 earned by men.
Recognising that women may take a professional step back if they have children, we introduced 16 weeks of paid parental leave for both men and women. Eighty percent of men from across the business take their paternity leave, helping us develop a sharing environment, redress the balance between maternity and paternity leave, while also ensuring that same-sex partners aren’t left behind.
We have a dedicated Mastercard Women’s Leadership Network – a global network with local chapters in South Africa and Kenya that are tasked with developing and advancing women into leadership roles supported with training and mentorship opportunities.
We have evolved the recruitment process, designing 50/50 gender slates for all roles. The best person will always get the job but the process has been redesigned for greater fairness and opportunity.
Companies must make gender equality a priority, commit to KPIs and measure there progress. Much acclaimed Jane Fraser shattered the glass ceiling a few weeks ago by becoming the first women to lead a major US bank as the new CEO of Citigroup – a ceiling that has already been shattered in Africa. This is a positive step, but we can agree there is much more to do beyond these first milestones.
As we position our businesses for recovery in a post-Covid-19 world, we should be doing so with a vision and goals for gender parity. We need to provide girls with access to education from an early age so that they can develop the skills needed to be the leaders of tomorrow. We need to provide better access to financial and digital tools, support women in starting and growing their businesses, and foster a workplace where all employees feel valued, respected, and empowered to reach their greatest potential. By doing so, we can create a more equitable and prosperous future for us all.