Although there is undoubtedly still a long way to go before there is greater equality in boardrooms across South Africa, there are lessons from those who have made it, that can pave the way for others.

“Women’s leadership value and talents are steadily being unlocked. However, progress is slow. There are a few female leaders in executive management positions, but not nearly as a representation of the population split, of which over 51% are female,” says Tarina Vlok, MD of Elite Risk Acceptances, a specialist high net worth insurer and subsidiary of Old Mutual Insure.

According to research by Deloitte, South African women occupied 31.8% of seats in boardrooms in 2021, while there were 16.3% of board chairs held by women, and only 7.2% of CEOs were female.

The problem, asserts Vlok, is complicated, with gaps being made all the worse during the global pandemic. These gaps persist in today’s post-pandemic world.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2021, it will take 267.6 years for the gap between men and women globally to close at the current rate of reform. While more women are entering the skilled workplace, which contributes to wage parity, the gap is widened by the lack of women in leadership positions.

When looking at it from an industry lens, the problem is even worse, says Vlok.

“As an example, there are very few female leaders in the insurance industry,” she says.


“There are biases and pay gaps. If you look at history, during the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing operations were built by men for men. Given the time, it worked well because men filled the positions. Over the years women joined this workforce trying to fit into this model, and in the twenty-first century we are still playing catch-up,” says Vlok.

Pockets of success

“There is no legislation that prescribes minimum requirements for representation of women in boardrooms in South Africa, which is more reason why companies that are prioritising female leadership, should be commended, and seen as a corporate role model,” says Vlok.

With an all-female board since the company’s inception in 2018, the Elite Risk board is made up of four highly capable and seasoned businesswomen who represent the varied interests of Elite’s shareholders.

Besides Vlok, the Elite Risk board is made up of Karen Naidoo, Managing Director for Mutual & Federal Risk Financing, Thabile Nyaba, Old Mutual Insure’s Chief Risk Officer and Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA) Vice President, as well as Jacqué Hurter, Head of Legal at Old Mutual Insure.

Lessons on women in leadership from the all-female Elite board

According to Vlok, what makes the board at Elite Risk so special, is that the leadership philosophy is underpinned by a transformational approach, which filters down throughout the rest of the organisation.

“We have tapped into what I believe is a female superpower: We tend to focus on caring for the team on a personal level, motivating the team and subordinates, listening to the team member’s ideas, and problem-solving. This is unlike a transactional approach, where the focus falls on accomplishing tasks, implementing structure, and establishing power.”

She says this is helping to create a new narrative around the business decision-making power of women and shifting the conversation around female empowerment, which will open a much wider pool and pipeline of female leaders for the next generation.

Below are lessons from the Elite Board that may help others up the leadership rungs:

  • Women in leadership help other women: We must look out for each other. Mentor, coach, develop your reports. Have a strategic relationship with staff. Be brave enough to hire people who are better than you. Put employees and reports ahead of yourself. They say it’s difficult to turn a team into a high-performance team if you focus only on yourself. Unlock their potential and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing them soar. Let’s continue to break ground and make way for other women.
  • Remember what neuroscience says: The female brain is built for collaboration, community, judgement and focus and to read others and raise organisational IQ. Studies have shown that women like to lead through inspiration, transforming attitudes and beliefs and aligning people with meaning and purpose. We tend to have a holistic view of leadership and take other factors into account. In our globally connected economy, we must embrace empathy and creativity in our skillsets.
  • Embrace your feminine intuition and capabilities: We need to become women in the workplace. Not girls, not mothers, not work wives. We must also become self-aware and remember to pause, reflect and consider our intuition before responding to a situation.
  • Don’t get mad, get everything (with thanks to Ivana Trump): Have you ever had the experience where you’re in a meeting where you don’t feel heard? Men may just talk over you or dismiss your contribution? Understandably this would anger anyone. To get everything you want from the work environment you need to pause, take a breath, and then say what you want to say. Don’t jump in otherwise you may look overeager. Don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily.

Believe in yourself but know your own limitations. Self-awareness is incredibly important in this world that celebrates self-belief. If we see ourselves in a slightly more critical way, we tend to prepare better, which is a very good way to ensure competence and performance.