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New research shows women gaining power in business

As more women rise to senior levels within their organisations, a growing number are in charge of what their companies buy from other companies.

This has major implications for business as women use different criteria to men in decision making, including during business to business (B2B) transactions.

In a study conducted by A.T. Kearney, a leading global consultancy firm, and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) - over 200 B2B companies were analysed to understand the growing influence of women buyers.

Six out of 10 companies reported an increase in female decision-makers among their B2B customers and acknowledged that a different approach was needed to do business with this new category of senior women managers. Yet, only a handful has actually changed their approach.

A.T. Kearney found that South Africa reveals a similar picture, by conducting interviews with a number of senior women executives, amongst them Nicky Newton-King, CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE).

Some progress but still slow

The percentage of South African women in the workforce has risen from 40.4 per 1994 to 44.8 per cent in 2012, a CAGR of only 0.6 per cent according to Statistics South Africa.

A recent report by the Commission for Employment Equity found that the percentage of women in top management has grown from 14 per cent in 2002 to 20 per cent in 2012 -a higher (albeit still slow) CAGR of 4 per cent and (in total numbers) a far cry from equitable representation.

These numbers are supported by the sentiments expressed by some female executives, who believe that South Africa is making progress, with more and more women in core business roles and in senior positions. But they say in general the pace of change is slow.

Some organisations are exceeding these statistics, for example more than half of the executive committee members for the JSE are women. In fact, the JSE has reached a tipping point and now "focuses more broadly on diversity than specifically on increasing the number of women in the organisation," said Nicky Newton-King.

Shift in buying behaviour

This growing representation of women in top positions means that women are more often at either the buying or selling ends of B2B transactions. A.T. Kearney's interviews revealed, without exception, that women use different criteria to men in decision making, including during B2B transactions. Whereas on the whole, men use facts and logic, "Women have a higher balance between intuition and evaluation of facts in decision making," says Lindi Dlamini, Managing Director, Alexander Forbes Retail Holdings.

Women tend to work much more on relationships over and above the facts and "place much greater emphasis on the fit, providing a balanced view" says Sindisiwe Koyana, Executive Chair of Advance Capital, and women are usually much more inclusive and consultative in their decision making approach and in their general management style.

All of the women interviewed by A.T. Kearney used the words 'inclusive' and 'collaborative' to describe their observations of female decision makers. This management style is sometimes misinterpreted as indecisive and seen as women's biggest weakness. However, looked at from a different perspective, it is very often an 'edge' women have over men.

In spite of these differences, it appears that very few companies are actually factoring these dynamics into their sales approach and there are low levels of awareness of the importance of women in the decision making process, especially amongst men.

This might be because South Africans are still focused on fighting the battle to get more women voices around the top table. Most of the interviewees felt that some of the traditional barriers still exist and women are at a disadvantage before they even start the business engagement. For example, some of A.T. Kearney's interviewees felt that women in South Africa have to doubly prove their technical competencies before being recognized and acknowledged in the same way men are.

There are other barriers to fully leveraging the talents of South Africa's women. In most instances, the workplace is still not conducive to working outside the office. This, for most women is the flexibility they require in order to be successful. "The best organisations are alive to the dynamics of conditions that need to be in place for women," says Lindi Dlamini.

Capitalising on the new B2B economy

While very few companies in South Africa have thought about the competitive advantage of female behaviour in B2B, diversity in the workplace was cited time and again as a major competitive advantage and A.T. Kearney found that most of the South African companies it studied have this on their strategic agenda. "Diversity is real business strength; you want the different opinions around the table" says Nicky Newton-King.

The rising female economy is one of the main drivers of workforce diversity and inclusion and it can help give South African companies the competitive advantage they need in the global market.

However, most South African companies have a long way to go before they benefit fully from the competitive advantage in B2B transactions that including women in the workplace and in particular, women buyers brings..As referred to in A.T. Kearney's UK study, it seems most South African companies are 'Riding the trend' of the evolving customer base and not necessarily pushing ahead, leading the global pack. Leaders in all businesses have to drive the agenda in this topic, proposing new solutions, implementing approaches and engaging robustly until they get it right.

When businesses begin to acknowledge female decision making styles as strengths, when flexitime and telecommuting become the norm, then the need for quotas and regulations will start to fall away. South African companies can reach diversity targets and go beyond, across all sectors, at all levels. South African business men and women can play a leading role in this. And the country will see all the women at the top as our biggest competitive advantage.

Women already represent almost half of the South African labour force, yet all A.T. Kearney's interviewees confirmed that their organisations do not have a tailored approach targeted at females, especially in the B2B context. "We need to change our models of engagement to get the most out of our organisations," says Shireen Chengadu, Executive Director of Academic Programmes at Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

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