South African businesses are among the leaders when it comes to planning to hire more women this year, according to the 2013 Grant Thornton International Business Report on women in business, released last Friday.

The report surveys over 12 000 large private businesses and mid-sized listed firms annually across 44 countries.

It found that only 28% of senior management positions in South Africa were filled by women, and that this statistic had been static since 2009. This is not unique to South Africa, though, as the global average has also stayed static at 24%.

"These stats indicate an urgent need for change," partner and head of corporate finance at Grant Thornton Johannesburg, Jeanette Hern, said in a statement.

"However, when SA businesses were asked whether they would support the introduction of quotas to legislate for more women on executive boards of large listed companies, it is pleasing to note that 60% of SA businesses surveyed said they would support the quota system."

The South African government is also committed to improving female representation through the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Bill, which was approved by Cabinet for public comment in August 2012.

'Seeking equal representation of women'

The draft law seeks to ensure a 50/50 representation of women in both the public and private sectors.

"President Jacob Zuma's commitment to gender equality in this year's State of the Nation address and his reiteration of the importance of upcoming legislation to uplift more women into decision-making roles, are to be welcomed," Hern said.

The report also showed an improvement in the number of South African women in chief financial officer positions. "Women chief financial officers in SA more than doubled this year compared to 2012, up 128% from 14% to 32%," the report said.

"This steady improvement - although still small at this stage - may fare well for us in the long term - the number of accomplished women in CFO positions could just be the launch pad for women achieving a greater presence at a corporate board level," Hern said.

The report highlighted a need to change the approach to hiring women; suggestions included more flexible working hours, compressed work weeks, part-year work and flexi leave arrangements.

Compressed work weeks involve staff completing their working week hours in fewer days than the normal five-day week, and part-year work means reducing working hours on an annual basis rather than a daily or weekly basis.

"A large portion of SA's workforce lives far from central office locations and with the high level of single parent families in our country, flexible working hours would go a long way to solving some of the challenges women face," she said.

"South Africa has a fine tradition of strong women in business as well as women political leaders but there still is much room for improvement - we look forward to seeing the government's Bill on Gender Equality and Women Empowerment coming to fruition soon."

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