There have been numerous studies that show that women are not equally represented in senior roles in the workplace or in the boardroom. Reflecting this, the 2012 Women in Leadership Census, undertaken by the Businesswomen's Association of South Africa found that while women make up 52% of the South African population, they account for just 5.5% of chairperson positions, 17.1% of directorships, 3.6% of CEO positions and 21.4% of executive management positions. In a recent global study published in the January-February 2013 Harvard Business Review, there is only one woman in the top 50 best performing CEOs in the world: Meg Whitman in her former role as head of eBay.

While there are reports that display some progress, it generally does not reflect a constant upward trend. By way of example, gender transformation in the South African judiciary moved forward in May 2013 when President Zuma appointed five new female judges. However, also in May 2013, Lesotho’s Constitutional Court upheld a section of the Chieftainship Act which denies daughters the right to succeed to chieftainship.

The lack of equal representation at senior leadership levels is coupled to many workplace factors that impact women. One of the prominent issues for working mothers is the dilemma of balancing work and family, especially children. Both deserve her commitment and care - both are ‘right’ choices - but often time does not accommodate both. In this instance, it can be argued that men too face the challenge of achieving a work-life balance (although mostly with lesser family demands). However, there are a number of stumbling blocks that are particular to women, even in companies that support the need for gender transformation. Two such issues are especially noteworthy as they cross the line of sound ethics.

Unfairness and discrimination

Virtually all businesses would accept that fairness and the absence of discrimination are fundamental to a productive and ethical working environment. The principle of equal pay for the same job is an example of a fair, ethical approach. But studies still show that women often earn less than men for the equivalent job. Many companies also still treat pregnancy as if it’s a problem, discriminating against the recruitment or advancement of young women whom they think may be planning to have a family. In her recent book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg notes that men continue to treat women differently, even without meaning to hold them back; something she calls “benevolent sexism”.

Another, more challenging source of unfairness and discrimination for women is that the rules of behaviour for getting to the top aren’t the same for men and women. The same behaviour is often labeled quite differently: His “strong and decisive” is her “autocratic and dictatorial”. Writing on the HBR Blog Network, Marianne Cooper, the lead researcher for Lean In, references decades of social science research that has repeatedly found that women face distinct penalties for doing what they need to do, and what men are allowed to do, in order to get to the top. She notes that high-achieving women in particular experience a “backlash because their very success - and specifically the behaviors that created that success - violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave”, resulting in successful women leaders being considered either insufficiently feminine or too masculine.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace - the unwanted physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature - is another area of challenge for women. While in theory it is not limited to women, in practice they are the primary targets of this type of unethical conduct.

The problem with speaking out against this can be viewed in much the same light as whistleblowing. Despite there being legislative measures in place (for instance, The Protected Disclosures Act) to protect employees from occupational disadvantage when reporting wrongdoing, many people are still reluctant to report unethical conduct because they feel vulnerable to a range of adverse consequences, whether dismissal, compromised promotion opportunities or reduced prospects for salary increases or bonuses. This is especially the case for a sensitive issue such as sexual harassment, and even more so if the harassment is happening at a senior management level. An added factor that limits reporting is that instead of being seen as a loyal employee speaking out for the benefit of the organisation and other employees, the employee is sometimes treated with hostility as an informer or a trouble-maker. It can - and has - given rise to a situation where the institution ‘shoots the messenger’ for bringing unwelcome news.

The extra challenges faced by women can be viewed as supporting the claim that there simply isn’t a level playing field at work for women (which is reinforced by that fact that gender transformation never applies to men). However, at an organisational level changes can be achieved with leadership’s support for and commitment to building an ethical corporate culture with strong values. For women, a sound approach lies in using workplace ethics as the over-arching issue against which unacceptable and unethical practices are raised, and to continually promote sound ethics because when ethics shapes workplace behaviour, decisions and strategy, it offers the best bulwark against all forms of abuse and misconduct.

By Cynthia Schoeman
Published in HR Future, August 2013