Why do we need more female leaders in Africa? by James Adair, Executive Search Consultant

Why do we need more female leaders in Africa? by James Adair, Executive Search Consultant

There has been much talk of female leadership in politics recently with Hilary Clinton narrowly missing out on becoming the first female President of the USA, whilst Theresa May recently became the UK’s second female Prime Minister following the dramatic Brexit vote.

Whilst female candidates are gaining more prominence in politics there is much continued hand-wringing in the US and UK about the so called ‘glass ceiling’ preventing the promotion of more women to leadership positions in the private sector.  The topic of female pay also remains a thorny one with efforts to close the gender gap making little impact around the world.  Earlier this month thousands of women in Iceland stopped work at 2:28 pm and marched in protest against gender pay-gap. Why 2:28 pm? Because based on the 14% pay gap that’s when they start working for free.

So this seems like a good time to note how Africa is leading the way in both the election of female political leaders and the promotion of women to senior roles in business.  It also allows us at Executives in Africa to share some of our data on this subject as well as some anecdotal evidence from over 250 senior level executive searches conducted across Africa.


It is striking to consider that the country in the world with the highest percentage of female parliamentarians is in Africa.  Rwanda leads the world with an extraordinary 64% of MPs being women.  Liberia, Namibia and Mauritius currently have female Presidents or Prime Ministers and the following African countries have previously been led by women; Malawi, Central African Republic, Senegal, Sao Tome and Principe, Mozambique, Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Mauritius and Mali.

A McKinsey report published earlier this year described how between the year 2000 and 2014 the average number of female parliamentarians in Africa doubled to 24%, second only to the EU (28%) and well ahead of the USA (18%) and Asia (15%).  At cabinet level the number of female ministers in Africa (22%) is in line with the global average of 23% but looking at a regional level East Africa is way ahead with 32%.

Picture- By U.S. Department of State, via Wikimedia Commons


In terms of senior female leadership positions in business Africa is also very much a trailblazer.  Africa is joint first with the USA for female CEOs with 5% of women holding this top position[1].  This bears positive comparison to Asia (4%), the EU (3%) and Latin America (2%).

In our own experience we are seeing increasing numbers of women on the shortlists we deliver to our clients.  In the last year 14% of our shortlisted candidates were women.  What is more promising is the percentage of women candidates we eventually placed with clients, which was 15%.  This represents a fantastic conversion rate from the number shortlisted and proves statistically that if outstanding female candidates are put in front of our client companies they stand every chance of getting hired.

Once given this initial opportunity to join senior management, the McKinsey report shows that, in Africa, women have a good comparative representation on Executive Committees, an important barometer of genuine commercial participation.  Africa is the second highest region surveyed with 23% of Executive Committee members being women, slightly behind the EU (26%) but more advanced than Asia and Latin America (both 18%) and the US (15%).  It is worth noting at this stage, that the EU will need to almost double the percentage of female Executive Committee members to achieve actual gender parity, so even the market leader here has a lot of work left to do.

Looking at the breakdown of different industries is also instructive, since women are still woefully under-represented in traditionally male sectors such as heavy industry.  Where we tend to see greater numbers of senior female executives, is in the younger, high-growth sectors such as telecoms and financial services.

Reviewing the Executives Searches that Executive in Africa carried out in the last year, the highest numbers of shortlisted women candidates were indeed found in financial services and FMCG.  In fact, in three of the financial services mandates we carried out this year, there were a higher number of women than men on the shortlists.

Why does it matter?

One of the striking things to emerge from the McKinsey report, and a finding that tallies with our own experience of placing executives in over 30 countries across Africa, is that the more profitable the company, the more enlightened they tend to be with regards to senior female appointments.

The study showed that the companies in Africa with the highest share of female board members displayed earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) margins an astonishing 20% higher than the industry average.  Statistics also show that companies with better return on investment (ROI) for shareholders had higher numbers of women at the top.

It is not possible to give a conclusive answer as to why companies with higher level of female executives tend to perform better financially but we hear a lot of anecdotal evidence from our clients as to why more women give their businesses a better balance.  This dynamic is often cited as leading better risk management and a more open, balanced and collaborative approach to decision making.

Another important benefit is a better understanding of, and relation to, their customers.  In certain sectors, such FMCG, this is hugely important since, around the world, and Africa is a case in point, women still control the purse strings when it comes to household spending, influencing and estimated 70-80% of consumer spending globally.

How will things improve?

The world has a long way to go to achieve gender parity in the workplace, both in terms of numbers and pay.  But positive steps are being taken and in Africa quick progress can be made given the already encouraging situation.  Many of our female candidates have talked about the importance of mentors in the workplace and the benefit of having guidance and encouragement from senior role models.

There tend to be fewer women in middle management positions in Africa when compared to the EU and US and this needs to be addressed if we are going to see more women in executive management positions in the future.

Lastly networks are important, and improved professional female networks will be key to uncovering more opportunities for outstanding potential female leaders.  Here we would strongly encourage any professional African women in Diaspora to come to our regular networking events in London.  The next meeting of our Professionals For Africa will be held in February 2017 so look out for further details.

In the meantime, we welcome any of your stories about the challenges of gaining promotion as a woman in the workplace or the benefits you have found as a business leader in increasing the number of senior female executives within your organisation.  I am sure my Managing Director, Sarah Fitzgerald, would be delighted to hear from you.

By James Adair, Executive Search Consultant, Executives in Africa – JA@executivesinafrica.com

[1]Women Matter – Africa, McKinsey & Company, August 2016

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