Board level (in)visibility and critical mass in South African companies

05 Aug 2021

PURPOSE : Women still face barriers that delay their upward mobility in organisations. This study aims to examine whether women experience critical mass as sufficient to shift deep level discursive dynamics, theorised as an (in)visibility Vortex. DESIGN/METHODOLOGY/APPROACH : A qualitative method was used to collect and analyse data on the lived experiences of 16 board-level female leaders who have been appointed to male-dominated boardrooms in South Africa. FINDINGS : The findings confirm that numeric representation is too simplistic to resolve deep level gendered dynamics. At a personal level: self-confidence, a bigger purpose and competence-experience were found to be counter-forces to Vortex. The role of the chairperson was also crucial. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS : Organisations must be reminded that even where the number of women on a board has reached beyond a critical mass, hidden barriers still exist. When developing women leaders, practitioners need to penetrate below the surface to appreciate the undercurrents and address them at that level. Organisations need to nurture the personal attributes that counter the forces of the Vortex. Mentorship, sponsorship and coaching may be beneficial. The role of the chairperson is especially important in disrupting deep level dynamics. Chairpersons need to be more deliberate and proactive to refute behaviours that exclude and undermine women’s full participation. ORIGINALITY/VALUE : Contrary to the (in)visibility perspectives, the women in this study did not “withdraw” or “conceal” their gender when “exposed” in male-dominated boardroom dynamics. Reasons for this are explored including the potential for further research on the construction of a “trailblazing” identity.