The lived experiences of African women transitioning from professional services firms to corporate environments

Smith, Gerlind Irene
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This research was conducted to explore the career experiences and career transitions of African women Chartered Accountants in the South African business environment where employment equity of race groups is sought. The international pursuit of gender transformation at the executive level, together with the South African employment equity targets, makes professional African women a key group for employers. Their lived experiences and career transitions challenges were the focus of this study. Qualitative research was deemed the most suitable approach to obtain depth of understanding of an area that has not previously been researched. Semi-structured interviews provided insight to participants who experienced transitions within professional services firms (PSF), returned to PSF, and transitioned out of PSF to other corporates. Since career transitions of this group of professionals did not appear in the literature, a theoretical framework of related literature was derived, which informed the development of a semi-structured interview guide. Sixteen interviews were conducted with participants from South Africa’s Gauteng province. Participants fell into four groups: those who remained in PSF, those who returned to PSF after having left, those who left and were at a managerial level, and finally, those who had left and were at executive levels. Interviews, with permission of the participants, were recorded, transcribed and analysed using ATLAS.ti software. The analysis resulted in 145 codes, 23 categories and 10 themes. The increase in black women professionals in organisations is slower than would have been expected, with monitoring emphasis placed on overall racial transformation rather than gender-specific change. This research found that African women CAs experienced being regularly targeted by recruiters and employers for positions. Participant career transitions were found to be impacted by South Africa’s employment equity legislation, resulting in career fast-tracking initiatives and being targeted as new hires by organisations. Participants’ lived experiences highlighted that their first transition into the work environment established a basis for comparison when experiencing subsequent transitions. Career transition challenges experienced include racial tensions resulting from perceived fast-tracking, organisational unpreparedness in assisting newcomers, and a lack of role models and structured support. Tenure is impacted by ineffective transition experiences. Organisations lack sufficient programmes to cater to the unique challenges faced in these career transitions. Thus, coaching is proposed as a suitable intervention. Family backgrounds, role models and other significant networks are not generally available as support resulting in a need for coaching. Based on different types of transitions identified in the study, a model was developed to guide business coaches in assisting future clients in preparing for transitions, going through career transitions, as well as establishing themselves within new organisations. Further research should take in a wider sample, as this study was limited to participants within Gauteng. Studies focussing on other professions such, as the legal, medical and engineering profession, are recommended to establish the lived experiences of African women’s career transitions.
A research report submitted to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, University of Witwatersrand, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Management in Business Executive Coaching Wits Business School, Johannesburg February 2017
Smith, Gerlind Irene (2017) The lived experiences of African women transitioning from professional services firms to corporate environments, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, <>