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The representation of women in the South African economy


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.


2. 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.


3. 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