About the Author(s)

Anita Bosch Email symbol
Women at Work, University of Stellenbosch Business School, Bellville, South Africa

Lize Booysen symbol
Women at Work, University of Stellenbosch Business School, Bellville, South Africa

Graduate School of Leadership and Change, Keene, Antioch University, Ohio, United States of America


Bosch, A., & Booysen, L. (2021). Women in business in Africa: (Re)claiming our agency. South African Journal of Business Management, 52(1), a2972. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajbm.v52i1.2972

Note: The introduction section of the editorial was adapted from the call for papers for the Special Collection.


Women in business in Africa: (Re)claiming our agency

Anita Bosch, Lize Booysen

Copyright: © 2021. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

A review of the articles published in the South African Journal of Business Management (SAJBM) specifically relating to women as employees, managers, leaders and entrepreneurs revealed that 16 articles were published over more than 50 years, with the first, authored by Sandra Van der Merwe and titled A portrait of the South African woman manager, appearing in 1979, 10 years after the founding of the SAJBM. During the 1980s, the titles of two studies published indicated the tentative positioning of topics advocating women’s rights, with the late Rita Kellerman (1980) asking whether working women and organisations were compatible, and Truida Prekel (1980) penning an article titled Why a special look at women?. The late Ronel Erwee wrote two important articles, the first proposing entrepreneurship as a career option for women (1987), given the fact that women were not necessarily welcomed in the corporate world at the time. Her second article (1992) addressed the issue of organisational variables that influence women’s advancement in South Africa. The last contribution by Ronel was followed by a period of drought of articles about women at work, which was only broken in 2005 with an article by Akinola on gender and structure in the cocoa industry in Nigeria. More recent gender articles in the SAJBM, amongst others, problematised women through the queen bee syndrome – the reluctance of top-level women to help other women reach higher levels in the organisation (Johnson & Mathur-Helm, 2013) – investigated work–family conflict (Bagraim & Harrison, 2013), reported on gender differences in workplace spirituality (Nasurdin, Nejati, & Mei, 2013), explored women’s leadership competencies (Samuel & Mokoaleli, 2017), related cultural influences on innovation amongst female entrepreneurs (Idris, 2010) and examined women’s entrepreneurial cognitive ambidexterity (De Villiers Scheepers, Boshoff, & Oostenbrink, 2017). Three more articles published in the SAJBM considered differences between men and women as users of technology (Kotze, Anderson, & Summerfield, 2016; Nel & Raleting, 2012) and food products (Priilaid & Horwitz, 2016). Emirati women’s experiences of job satisfaction introduced a perspective on women in the Middle East (Ercan, 2018), and the most recent article advances research on women at work by making a sound methodological contribution to quantitative research on women and men (Steyn & De Bruin, 2020a). Furthermore, the above contributions predominantly focused on South African women and workplaces, and there is still a dearth of research on the lived experiences of women at work on the rest of the African continent.

Whilst scholarly articles on women in the workplace in African populations, focusing either on workplaces created by women entrepreneurs or women employees, have been published in other South African and international journals, this still constitutes a negligible slice of the global research on women at work and in business (e.g. Adisa, Mordi, & Akanji, 2021; Adisa, Mordi, Simpson, & Iwovo, 2021; Adom, 2014; Adom & Anambane, 2020; Adom & Asare-Yeboa, 2016; Adom, Asare-Yeboa, Quaye, & Ampomah, 2018; Akanle & Nwaobiala, 2019; Bako & Syed, 2018; Booysen, 1999; Booysen & Nkomo, 2010, 2014; Bosch & Barit, 2020; Botha, 2016, 2017; Bowden, Govender, Edwards, & Cattell, 2018; Carrim, 2016, 2018; Carrim & Nkomo, 2016; Dawa & Namatovu, 2014, 2016; Du Plessis, Rothmann & Botha, 2018; Hoobler, 2016; Geldenhuys, Bosch, Jeewa, & Koutris, 2019; Grover, 2019; Hoobler, Gericke, & Koekemoer, 2021; Jaga, Arabandi, Bagraim, & Mdlongwa, 2018; Kasseeah & Tandaryen-Ragoobur, 2016; Koekemoer & Olckers (2019); Lauwo, 2018; Littrell & Nkomo, 2005; Mangaroo-Pillay & Botha, 2020; Neneh, 2017, 2019; Ojong, Simba, & Dana, 2021; Palmer & Bosch, 2017; Phume & Bosch, 2018; Ribeiro, Bosch, & Becker, 2016; Viviers, Mans-Kemp & Fawcett, 2017; Tandaryen-Ragoobur, 2014, 2015; Tandaryen-Ragoobur & Kasseeah, 2017; Tandaryen-Ragoobur & Pydayya, 2016; Welsh, Memili, Kaciak, & Ahmed, 2013).

This limited count and the diffuse topics relating to women at work and in business in the SAJBM and in scholarly research on women at work in Africa signalled a need for a special collection focusing on women in business in Africa. The aim of this collection is to extend knowledge on how, in the formal economy, the entry of a large number of women into paid work, business management, leadership, business ownership and female entrepreneurship in Africa has been marked by changes in legislation, economic and behavioural and relational patterns, as well as mind-shift changes regarding gender stereotypes, gendered work and workplaces. More specifically, this special collection invited publications on research that highlights positive developments in women’s business and organisational participation in Africa, in order to expand our understanding of how women overcome and circumvent limitations, or how women reconfigure and adjust existing social patterns when leading and managing business organisations. In this special collection, we centred women within business management research, moved beyond theorising about barriers and limitations that women experience, and, instead, explored the agency that women hold, develop and employ when navigating spaces that were previously predominantly occupied by men.

Aim of this editorial

In this editorial, we outline a number of ways in which research can be strengthened to improve both the theory and explanation of business outcomes for business women in Africa. Whilst diversity is often measured through an increase or decrease in numbers of particular groupings in organisations, such as race, gender or leadership level, and levels of representation in different job types and industries (Booysen & Nkomo, 2014), we contend that diversity and inclusion should also invite researchers to explore lesser utilised approaches to expand our collective understanding of gender as it relates to the workplace, entrepreneurial behaviour and business outcomes.

Along with Bell and Nkomo (2021), Fatou (2021), and Kinnear and Ortlepp (2016), we support a focus on the complexity of gendered social relations that sustain hegemonic power imbalances, enacted across a range of formal and informal social and institutional policies and practices. Embracing gender complexity shifts the emphasis away from characteristics or seeming insufficiencies of individual women to an emphasis on social practices of organisations, larger systems and cultural and institutional mechanisms designed by those in power, both unintentionally and deliberately, to maintain and build their control.

Furthermore, we support the importance of using intersectionality (Gouws, 2017) and a critical identity lens in future research and theorising about women in business in Africa. Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) is a concept and analytical tool that unlocks ways in which different forms of social inequality, oppression and discrimination interact and overlap in multidimensional ways. Booysen (2018) elucidated the relationship between intersectionality and identity in this way:

[B]oth intersectionality and identity work are focused on how individuals navigate themselves in their worlds, and how they make sense of who they are, in relation to others. Intersectionality, similar to post-modern and critical views of social identity, also focuses on the multiplicity and simultaneity of identities and multidimensional conceptualisations of identity. (p. 15)

After an introduction to the background of women in business in Africa, we position alternative gender theories and researcher approaches, and provide an overview of the articles included in the special collection. This editorial ends with suggestions for future research on women in business in Africa.

Background to women in business in Africa

Whilst the phrase ‘Women in Business in Africa’ implies a universal African way of doing things, this is far from the reality. Africa is a complex continent that consists of 54 countries and diverse populations that are divided along political, economic, cultural, linguistic and ethnic lines, all with different realities (Muchiri, 2011; Ojong et al., 2021). Therefore, any scholarly quest for a distinctive way of depicting women in business in Africa should be essentialist in nature. Whilst people in Africa are not a homogenous group, and sensitivity to the diversity of cultures and contexts is required in interrogating the place of women in business in Africa, research is beginning to show that there might be broad underlying elements and commonalities across African cultures that could inform our thinking of women in business in Africa. These include similar patterns of gender discrimination, traditional domestic role division, structures of patriarchy and patrilineal wealth distribution that restrict female property ownership and land tenure, as well as their access to education, financing and social welfare services (Akanle & Nwaobiala, 2019; Lauwo, 2018; Ojong et al., 2021; Tavenner & Crane, 2018). Images of the continent express various stories about women’s social and economic (dis)placement, to a greater or lesser extent. This manifests in, for instance, women’s lack of influence regarding reproduction – powerlessness in decision-making about the use of contraception – and poor healthcare for children, as well as gender-based violence (Anderson, 2021; Choi & Ting, 2008), leading to limited opportunities for education, employment and business activity in the formal economy.

Furthermore, the pervasive underlying social market mechanisms, forged through socially-embedded masculine gender norms and gendered power dynamics, cause inequitable gender participation in formal markets (Ojong et al., 2021; Tavenner & Crane, 2018). In addition, over the years, these patterns were exacerbated by persistent interaction of racialised and sexist colonial influences in ways that marginalised women and privileged men, ‘and strengthened male control over female labor and productivity’, whilst marginalising black women differently from white women by ‘maintaining and reproducing relationships of power in postcolonial societies’ (Gouws, 2017, p. 26). Both these influences of dominance had a detrimental influence on women in business across Africa (Takayanagi, 2019, p. 39). Indeed, in the face of the poverty that is a reality in many African countries, gender inequality has become even more pronounced, and existing inequalities are being re-inscribed and reinforced, as evidenced by Porter et al.’s (2020) claim:

[A]ny expansion of female autonomy, whether this entails a business venture, education or health decision, can pose a potent threat to husbands and boyfriends who have been conditioned by traditions of patriarchy to expect total control in the relationship: male vulnerability in contexts of chronic poverty reinforces such concerns. (p. 182)

In the context of Africa, calls have been made for changes to the application and allocation of economic resources, with an emphasis on improvements in education, safety, health care, childcare and access to resources to support small businesses (Akanle & Nwaobiala, 2019; Fatou, 2021; Lauwo, 2018; Tavenner & Crane, 2018). Whilst small gains have been made in the number of women managers in organisations, and there have been marginal improvements in the number of women serving on boards (Mans-Kemp & Viviers, 2019), the number of women business owners in Africa has been confirmed to be exceptionally low (Fatou, 2021; Takayanagi, 2019).

African women often have constrained access to economic means, causing them to remain financially dependent on men (Sedziafa, Tenkorang, Owusu, & Sano, 2017) or governments for social grants (Williams, 2018). Consequently, the majority of business women in Africa are relegated to the informal market and small-to-medium informal entrepreneurial businesses (Fatou, 2021; Ojong et al., 2021).

Despite the above challenges that women in business in Africa are navigating, there has been a significant rise in women entrepreneurship over the past decade. Africa does not only have the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world but also women account for the majority of entrepreneurs in Africa (World Bank, 2019). What is also noteworthy is that, in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal sector, which is dominated by women-led enterprises consisting of micro-enterprises, nano-enterprises and small family enterprises, accounts for more than 50% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 90% of the total employment of women (Fatou, 2021).

In their review article on women entrepreneurs in Africa, Ojong et al. (2021) highlighted the significant contributions of women in Africa in this way:

[A]frica’s women mean business. …, can add millions to economies if taken more seriously… [Female entrepreneurs in Africa are] rewriting the narrative, … [are] set to transform Africa’s economy… [and thus the] future of the African continent … Clearly, women entrepreneurs in Africa make significant contributions to innovation, job and wealth creation, poverty reduction and household welfare … (p. 132)

Ojong et al. (2021) further pointed out that there was heightened research interest in women entrepreneurs in Africa over the past 6 years, with more articles published ‘between 2015 and 2019 than in the previous 27 years’ (p. 132). African women’s entry into entrepreneurship options in the informal and formal markets can be seen as adaptive strategies to navigate the convergence of different socially-embedded cultural influences that cause gender inequities in formal workplaces, and to deal with the constraints of gendered power dynamics and power structures, including those within the private sphere. We perceive this as a reclaiming of female agency, and agree with Kinnear and Ortlepp (2016), who purport, ‘[t]hrough their entrepreneurial activity, African women are asserting their ability to lead on their own terms.’ (p. 3, [authors own italics])

Researcher approaches

Feminist scholars have, for many years, argued for greater inclusion and an opening up of opportunities for women to participate fully in the economy and in workplaces. Examples include Sinclair’s (2007, 2014) critiques of taken-for-granted business practices, Bell and Nkomo’s (2021) studies of professional black and white women, Meyerson and Scully’s (1995) work on ‘tempered radicalism’, Fletcher’s (1999, 2004) scholarship on relational theory, Joan Acker’s (2012) work on ‘gendered organisations and intersectionality’ and Ely, Ibarra and Kolb’s (2011) concept of ‘second-generation gender bias’. Whilst these theories are not new – many feminist and critical theorists have laboured for decades to explore the tenacious challenge of patriarchy in our organisations and businesses – feminist theories and critical gender research lenses are more prevalent in the academy amongst women scholars than in general business management scholarship and practice. We are of the opinion that scholars of business and organisation studies need to acknowledge the importance of gender- and socio-structural power differences when planning and conducting research.

Current theorising about women at work presents four prevailing approaches to studying gender and organisational change. The most dominant three approaches are: ‘fix the woman’, ‘value the feminine’ and ‘creating equal opportunities’. The fourth, less dominant, approach, based on critical management studies, focuses on the complexity of entrenched systemic imbalances of gender dynamics in workplaces (Bell & Nkomo, 2021; Ely et al., 2011).

The ‘fix the woman’ approach is the most prevalent, and assumes that men and women are essentially the same. The assumption is that organisations function as competitive meritocracies, and that inequities arise from deficiencies in women’s knowledge, competence, choices, behaviours and attitudes. The approach is reactionary, and implies that organisational systems are static and unchangeable, and that heterosexual men’s lived experience and roles are the gold standard to which all economically active people should be held. Under the ‘fix the woman’ approach, women are viewed as workplace visitors, and the system is left unchanged. In effect, women are blamed for their purported inadequacies and become the targets of change. In summary, the approach of ‘fixing’ women is no longer a viable option for diversified and sustainable workplaces or for valid business research.

Producing a special collection on women in Africa during a pandemic served as the perfect backdrop to illustrate the phenomenon of gendered roles, work and workplaces. Women and men are not the same for a number of societal, cultural, reproductive and identity reasons. During the pandemic, women’s societal roles and caregiving responsibilities were amplified. Although many men and women have lost their employment or have had to close their businesses, ‘women have been affected disproportionately by the crisis’ (Casale & Posel, 2021, p. 1). Women have lost their jobs and remained unemployed, had their work hours cut back more severely than men’s were and took up a larger portion of childcare (Casale & Posel, 2021). The maintenance of emotional stability within households that experienced job loss, illness, bereavement, anxiety and large changes in routine predominantly befell women, because emotional labour is predominantly expected of women (Hochschild, 1983; Ojong et al., 2021). In contrast, much of what we know and accept as valid within management and organisation theory espouses gender neutrality and ‘… tend[s] to marginalize and silence feminist theorizing on organizations’ (Benschop, 2021, p. 1). In business, gender neutrality is enacted by treating women and men ‘the same’ in order to avoid allegations of discrimination (Bosch, 2021). Gender neutrality in research conceals the systems of power and behaviour that situate, construct and reinforce gender inequalities. It also conceals an array of gendered performances that men display, instead of presenting such performances as standard practices of acceptable or desired behaviour and status within workplaces, as though men are not gendered beings. This creates a false sense of meritocracy. An assumption of gender neutrality in research may also lull researchers into poor quantitative analysis decisions that reproduce bias in psychometric instruments (Steyn & De Bruin, 2020b). However, research designs that acknowledge differences between women and men by incorporating gender relations, power, identity, critical theory and test for measurement invariance when utilising survey research present an opportunity for business management scholars to work towards gender inclusive workplaces that are valuable and profitable, and have a societal impact.

A detour from the gender-neutral stance in business management research is found in marketing research. Here, gender is operationalised through a focus on the behaviour, values and choices of women as consumers (Kotze et al., 2016; Nel & Raleting, 2012; Priilaid & Horwitz, 2016).

Notwithstanding the usefulness and place of consumer insights, we urge business management scholars to move beyond women’s buying power and consumer influence, and inquire about the structure and nature of gendered workplace practices and behaviours. Moving beyond utilising women as merely a category from which to profit, to a focus on how women can gainfully and equally engage in business ownership, management and other paid work, will ensure that women’s economic empowerment and wealth accumulation can also be achieved.

Even though we have established the rationale for research that acknowledges gender nuances and uniqueness, the ‘fix the woman’ approach in business management ignores differences. Instead, this approach attempts to change women so that they fit into organisations.

In reaction to the ‘fix the woman’ approach, the ‘value the feminine’ approach (Ely & Meyerson, 2000) celebrates differences between men and women, and inequity is addressed by revealing the value of women’s ways of working, which has brought legitimacy to a more ‘feminine approach’. These practices have, more recently, been lauded in studies highlighting the importance of feminine characteristics in leadership and organisational citizenship (Booysen, 2009; Booysen & Nkomo, 2010; Eagly & Carli, 2003; Offerman & Foley, 2020), and include the agreement that female leaders tend to utilise higher levels of communication and participation within the organisation whilst displaying more relational leadership characteristics.

In addition, Booysen (2020) pointed out two evolutionary workplace trends that hold specific importance for the advancement of women, because both these trends shifted the focus of leadership to ‘feminine’ leadership practices.

The first is:

[A] trend towards the democratisation of workplaces, involving less hierarchical structures and more networked systems. In these workplaces, leadership is more distributed and decision-making is pushed towards lower levels in the organisational structures. (p. 195)

The second is the changes in how leadership is viewed away from great man leadership theory, where the leader is the great knower, agentic and male, to a more inclusive and people-focused practice of ‘more networked, shared, and relational ways of leading, in which empowerment and equal partnerships are valued and leadership is co-created’ (p. 195).

In the context of Africa, Fatou (2021) asserted that because of their relational nature, women business owners are good at building social networks, and tend to have fewer problems with unions and government regulations. Ojong et al. (2021) observe that, whilst the normative expectation imposed on women to integrate multiple life roles into their entrepreneurial activities might be seen as a burden, it also opens up multiple possibilities for building social and cultural capital. Kinnear and Ortlepp (2016, p. 9) emphasised that South African women extend power to other women through their social and community networks. The authors add that this gets done in a politically astute manner: ‘… how to be effective in a “man’s world” while co-opting uniqueness as women’, where personal relationships are seen as ‘powerful in creating “community” rather than institutional influence on a macro-level’.

However, the ‘feminine approach’ can also reinforce gender stereotypes, and tends to ignore intersectional identities. Girls are often socialised to perform relational practices (Fletcher, 1999). These relational practices are useful in understanding the performativity of gender, also in the workplace, such as helping others and teaching a colleague (Fletcher, 1999). Because relational practices are socially expected of women, and not ordinarily of men, managers conflate relational practices with feminine traits. In this way, relational practices are regarded as inherent to women, rendering these effortless and natural for women to display. Conversely, as men are not socially associated with relational practices, their relational behaviour is rewarded based on the assumed effort they exert when producing such practices. Fletcher (1999) explained that women’s relational behaviour becomes ‘disappearing acts’ in organisations, as it falls neatly into expectations of the social role that women should ideally play. Not acknowledging the effort required of women, together with the expectation of women to perform jobs that involve nurturing and support, maintains their subordination, and their efforts and skills are judged to be less strategic and scarce. The disappearing nature of these acts manifests in women receiving lower performance ratings and fewer opportunities for promotion, and ultimately reinforces the gender pay gap.

The third approach, ‘creating equal opportunity’, assumes that inequity at work is an outcome of socio-structural barriers that prevent equal access for women, and that implementation of equal opportunity- and women-friendly policies, such as work–family benefits, will improve the recruitment, retention and advancement of women at work. Changes to workplace policy framed as ‘a concession for women’ (Gouws, 2012, p. 531) cement the underlying norm that women are difficult to manage, and that they need special allowances. Furthermore, these ‘concessions’ signal to men that workplaces do not accept that they should be engaged with primary caregiving, and inhibit their need to nurture and care. Changing limiting policies is thus a step forward. However, it is also important to change underlying values and beliefs, otherwise changes brought about by efforts to establish equal opportunities may lead to a backlash from groups that regard these changes as disenfranchising.

Therefore, a fourth frame emerged: to disrupt ‘the pervasive and deeply entrenched imbalance of power in the social relations between men and women’ (Ely & Meyerson, 2000, p. 113). This fourth frame, steeped in critical management studies, redefines gender as ‘a complex set of social relations enacted across a range of social practices’ (p. 113). This non-traditional approach shifts the focus away from characteristics of individual women to social practices of organisations and larger systems – the formal and informal practices, policies and social norms ‘designed by and for … heterosexual class-privileged men [who] appear neutral’ but maintains existing, oppressive ways of working and hierarchies of power (p. 107). This shift in perspective creates the potential for radical organisational change, and opens the door for theories, methodologies and scholarship to move away from identity politics and seeks to address issues of power and privilege from a systemic perspective. Joan Acker (2012) detailed a number of ways in which the gendered nature of organisations can be analysed. For instance, ‘beliefs about gender differences and equality/inequality’ are captured in organisational culture (p. 216). Key signs that gender and other intersectional differences are ignored are when boardroom conversations end with shoulder-shrugging and resignation to the fact that organisational practices cannot be changed. Another example that on the surface seems benign is the belittling or exclusion of women ‘particularly in male dominated groups’ (Acker, 2012, p. 216). This also sets the scene for continued undervaluing of women’s skills and workplace contribution. Analysis of oppressive power unearths unproductive behaviours that also befall marginalised men. Those individuals who do not conform to aggressive and competitive masculine norms are often sidelined and excluded because they do not support the prevailing gendered system.

In conclusion, business researchers make assumptions about gender in the workplace, irrespective of the focus or underpinning of their studies. These assumptions range from the notion of gender neutrality, where gender is silent, untouched and disappears, to explicitly framing workplaces as sites of gendered structures resulting in social barriers for groups that identify with, represent or perform gender in feminine ways. We contend that all workplaces and work behaviours are gendered, complex and embedded within distinctive socio-historical contexts, and that business research that does not acknowledge a multiplicity of gendered identity intersections may unintentionally be reinforcing gender inequality at work.

The contribution of this special collection

This special collection opens with Emmanuel Orkoh and Wilma Viviers’s contribution, Gender composition of the ownership and management of firms and the gender digital divide in Africa. This quantitative study contributes to knowledge on the nexus between gender inequality in firm ownership and management and the gender digital divide in Africa, and highlights the need for the design of gender-aware policies on the application of digital technologies and business management and leadership in African countries.

The findings show very low representation of women in the ownership and management of firms in Africa. Whilst just over a quarter of the firms have some women as owners, less than 10% of these are majority- or all-female-owned, and only 12% have women as top managers. The regression estimates suggest that firms that have some women as owners are more likely to adopt digital technologies, but women-owned and women-led firms are less likely to adopt digital technologies for their business activities. These results are consistent with the utilisation of digital technologies for business activities, which were found to be as follows. A partly women-owned or women-led firm is less likely to use digital technologies for business activities (using the internet for research and placing orders). However, such a firm is more likely to use e-mail for business communication. Partly women-owned firms are more likely to use digital technologies more intensively, whilst the opposite is observed for majority- or all-women-owned and women-led firms.

In the second contribution, titled Entrepreneurial ecosystems created by woman entrepreneurs in Botswana, Anastacia Mamabolo and Reitumetse Lekoko explore how 11 successful woman entrepreneurs in Botswana created their own entrepreneurial ecosystems to support their business ventures. Their findings show that these entrepreneurial ecosystems include social capital ties, human capital development, alternative funding mechanisms, access to local and international markets and the use of digital technology. Furthermore, the woman entrepreneurs were influenced by the entrepreneurial institutional conditions in their country. The practical implication of their findings is that, in a context of limited entrepreneurial resources in developing countries, woman entrepreneurs should build their own ecosystem by leveraging the existing social networks and collaborating with local and international private and public stakeholders. Furthermore, governments should tailor-make entrepreneurial programmes and foster public and private partnerships to support the advancement of woman entrepreneurs.

The third contribution highlights adaptive strategies women employ to navigate harsh physical and perceived threatening interpersonal contexts in a highly gendered work environment – an underground mine. In their article, ‘We are surviving well’: Adaptive strategies women apply in an underground South African mine. Salome Jansen van Vuuren, Marius Stander and Vera Roos identified adaptive strategies employed by women mine workers, which function on four levels: intrapersonal (adopting a different perspective and questioning traditional beliefs), behavioural (self-defence, solution-focused actions and consistent hard work), relational (supportive same gendered groups, support from working teams and safe interpersonal spaces for debriefing) and broader systemic support (approachable human resources [HR] department, supportive close relationships and external stakeholder resourcing). The authors also propose interventions to support and strengthen these adaptive strategies.

In closing, Nasima Carrim’s article Sandwiched between groups: Upward career experiences of South African Indian women, the fourth and final contribution, focuses on the understanding of challenges faced by two generations of Indian women managers in their career ascendancy in South Africa’s changing political landscape. This article interrogates the influence of socio-historical-political influences on gender and race. The results indicate that the intersection of these macro-level influences, partially embedded in the shifts from apartheid to a democratic South Africa, together with race, gender, culture and workplace impediments, produces different as well as converging outcomes for both older and younger Indian women managers in their upward career mobility. Compared with their older counterparts, the career ascendancy of younger Indian women is more challenging, as they have to compete against a bigger pool of qualified black candidates.

Carrim’s article explains how shifting identities are performed by women within the two generations, depending on their differing relational frameworks and the socio-historical situation during apartheid and in the transition towards democracy. It also shows how identities were performed to the demands of an apartheid society within which Indians, at the same time, occupied an ambivalent dual position: that of being a racial minority who shared some aspects of lived experiences of black and coloured people, whilst being a privileged socio-economic group.

In combination, these four contributions in this Special Collection on Women in Business in Africa point to the complexity of intersectionality and the agency with which women mitigate barriers to accessing economic participation and a lack of inclusion in workplaces. Whilst women in Africa may not yet be included, and in some cases accepted, in business, the normalising of relational practice as good practice and a focus on ‘gate-opening’ strategies for women in business in Africa, such as education, network-building, inter-generational interaction and building their own ecosystem in which to flourish, point towards future research directions.


In their review article of female entrepreneurship in Africa, Ojong et al. (2021, p. 244) conclude that ‘[a]rguably, the embeddedness of female entrepreneurs in often-hostile environments encourages them to develop innovative mechanism at different phases of the entrepreneurial process’. Therefore, we call for further research to unearth effective innovative and adaptive strategies for women entrepreneurs to navigate these hostile micro- and macro-economic, social and cultural environmental challenges, in order to be even more successful. These studies should be sensitive to go beyond colonial country boundaries to embrace ethnic diversity. After all, Africa is not a monolithic entity, and the intersections of socio, economic, historical and political contexts give rise to different challenges women need to deal with and different opportunities on which entrepreneurial women can capitalise.

With regard to organisations and formal workplaces in Africa, we encourage business research that theorises the structure, impact and effect of gender as broader than women as a consumer category. Feminist thought about aspects such as intersectionality, inclusion, gendered structures and meritocracy could serve as entry points to critically re-evaluate the ways in which business is practised, structured and organised. The key thinking about comparable worth and work equality (Acker, 1989; Rubery, 2019) could frame new business research approaches to pay, job evaluations, leadership representation and work–life balance. Through the introduction of gender theorisation into business research, it is hoped that studies will address the concern that Nkomo and Zoogah (2015) raised about the lack of depth in African studies. As such, business studies about women in Africa should address both the urban and rural contexts, recognise kinship influences, critically evaluate notions of ‘advanced’ and ‘less advanced’ practices, appreciate the influences of culture and embrace the usefulness of communal worldviews. Moreover, we need to acknowledge the intersectional situatedness of women embedded in their socio-historic-cultural context. We thus propose a focus on the fourth frame of theorising about women at work, which emphasises the complexity of entrenched systemic imbalances in gender dynamics, interlocked within contextualised workplaces, in future management and organisation research on women in business in Africa.


The authors would like to extend their sincere thanks to the anonymous reviewers and to Samantha Lawson, Teresa Kapp and Anna Azarch for their valuable input and time commitments to the Special Collection. The authors’ appreciation also extends to Professor Mias de Klerk, Editor of the SAJBM, for his steady support in seeing this project, which received more than 50 initial submissions, to its successful end.


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