By: Khanyisa Phika – Alexander Forbes Economist

More than 26 years later, women are still underrepresented in the South African economy

Every Women’s Day commemoration brings us an opportunity to track progress on the declaration made in 1994 by the country’s first democratic government to prioritise gender equality as reflected in the South African Constitution. For centuries women around the world have been marginalised by repressive cultural norms and excluded from fully participating in the economy and in decision-making roles to the detriment of society.

Equality, equity, and parity – what’s the difference?

Equality is the desired end state of equal opportunities and access. Equity is the process followed to achieve equality by addressing historical inequality issues. Parity is how we measure equality (all genders are represented equally in terms of numbers).

When assessing gender parities, three areas stand out:

  1. Women are often not granted meaningful work responsibilities

Sometimes the obscure reasoning for this is that they may fall pregnant and take maternity leave. This is observed in the type of policies employers put in place which often unintentionally prevent women from advancing in their careers and assuming leadership roles.

  1. Income disparities are still quite large between men and women who do work of equal value

This is despite women of working age accounting for about 51% of the total population (46% of the labour force) and contributing almost 50% of the national GDP. These statistics show that the value women bring to the economy is disproportionately larger than that brought by men.

  1. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed societal imbalances on the home front

The NIDS-Cram Wave 5 report on the impact of Covid-19 on employment in South Africa confirms that women have been more severely impacted by the challenging circumstances than men. However, women received the least of the income support provided by the government during the hard lockdown, with rippling effects on career progression and financial security.

Progress to close gender parity gaps remains extremely slow

According to the Economic Opportunity gender gap index, it will take about 202 years to close the glass ceiling where women are still being overlooked for managerial or senior official roles. It is quite evident that more work still needs to be done and fast.

  The labour market is still more favourable to men

According to Statistics SA, the unemployment rate among females increased from 26.6% in Q1 2008 to 34.0% in Q1 2021 (compared with from 20.5% to 31.4% for men over the same period). This confirms the bleak picture that employment conditions have worsened in the last decade despite a growing need for a more equal workforce as depicted by SA’s improved global gender equality ranking of 19th out of 149 countries.

Women’s career progression narrows at each successive level in many organisations on a global scale

A recent McKinsey study shows that across all industries, 48% of women were employed in entry-level positions, with only 23% in C-suite roles. According to a PwC 2019 report, women constitute only 3.3% of chief executives of JSE-listed companies. While female professionals increased from 45.9% in 2008 to 51.1% in 2020, women in managerial roles grew by only 1.8 percentage points since 2008 to 31.6% in 2020. At this rate, it will take another 30 years to achieve gender parity, especially in decision-making roles.

In South Africa, more progress in female representation is evident in the public sector than in the private sector. The number of women in parliament improved from only 2.7% prior to 1994 to 27.7% in 2020, translating into about 48% female representation of government and a ranking of 10th among the UN nations with gender quotas.

The issue of gender pay gaps is alarming

South Africa ranks 117 out of 149 countries in gender wage fairness, despite the positive gender equality ranking. Notably, extremely slow progress has been made on addressing gender pay gaps with the gender wage gap reduced by 0.03% and the gender pay gap stagnantly firm between 23% and 35%, despite considerable government legislation to prevent gender discrimination by employers. Meanwhile, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that the average global pay gap between men and women for equal work is at about 20%.

Women spend more hours on unpaid care work during the pandemic

Working mothers have an extended workday with the simultaneous full day of work and more hours spent caring for children and doing household activities than men, as the support structures before lockdown (school and childcare) were not available. Prior to the Covid-19 related restrictions, domestic work was greatly undervalued and underpaid, yet both men and women recognise the intense toll these activities take on women. There is a global appreciation of women’s rights and that many women spend more hours doing more than three-quarters of unpaid care work in a single day. Despite unpaid care and domestic work being an essential part to the functioning of the whole economy, women tend to endure disparate responsibility compared to men. Women are said to spend about 3 times more hours a day to unpaid care and domestic activity than men, and according to the UN, the monetary value of the unpaid work done by women is estimated between 10% and 39% of GDP.

Gender parity is the responsibility of all concerned

Closing gender disparities will not occur naturally; it will require deliberate intention and action on the part of government, business, men and women:

To further support women’s financial well-being, government should consider decent tax-deductible breaks for childcare. Currently, women typically pay for childcare. Unavoidable costs, such as lost hours at the workplace and the costs of providing food, clothing and education, tend to reduce the wealth that women could be accumulating over time for retirement.

It is commendable that South Africa has a robust legislative framework to support equality in leadership representation and in pay such as the Employment Equity (EE) Act, which enforces the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. However, pieces of legislation such as EE will not produce the results until those who can make the change effect it. The fact is both public and private sector leaders have the authority to close the gender gap in female career advancement and promote gender equality within their organisations.

Employers will need to implement family-friendly policies and procedures to support both male and female employees. Furthermore, women are equally capable of leading business to profitability, especially when supported, mentored and sponsored throughout their career stages. Companies that invest in inclusive and conducive culture not only promote equal opportunity and access for women to achieve their potential over the long term, but also find that the men thrive too, allowing for shared growth.

The dangers of inaction in correcting gender disparities include loss in output and increased inequality

The Covid-19 pandemic has extensively worsened gender equality prospects. If left unchecked, societies will continue to be less equal, more divided, and poorer, especially for women, hence the urgency to take corrective measures. There are risks that come with either delaying or complete failure of the implementation of processes that will promote gender parity. Most critical is that of the loss to potentially add an estimated US$13 trillion to the global GDP that could promote job creation opportunities and uplift women and societies and alleviate poverty.

This crisis is really an opportunity for business, government and policymakers to collectively redefine a clear economic recovery path. For South Africa to achieve sustainable economic growth and aggressively ignite job creation, women’s full and equal economic participation is paramount.


Categories: Alexander Forbes.