By Jessie Taylor
International Women’s Day takes place in March every year and is a time to reflect on the role women play in society and how they can be empowered further. One of the critical challenges facing women is economic inequality, which hampers economic growth and social change.
South Africa ranks 18th out of 156 countries assessed for gender equality in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Report for 2018. This comes while the country’s economy is at a tipping point, and greater economic participation by women could unlock the economic recovery needed.
The empowerment of women is an integral part of South Africa’s effort to achieve inclusive growth, create jobs and expand economic opportunities for all.
According to statistics published by Stats SA, the South African labour market is more favourable to women than men. Women face additional challenges that hinder them from accessing employment, promotions and certain sectors.
Men are more likely to be in paid employment than women, and women are more likely to be carrying out unpaid work. The rate of unemployment among women was almost 37% in women, compared to 32% in men, based on 2021 statistics. Women of colour are even more severely affected, with 41% of black women unemployed and 30% of coloured women unemployed, compared to 8% of white women.
However, even when women are employed, they face challenges. They are less likely to be promoted to managerial positions, with only a third of managerial positions in South Africa being filled by women. Men are more likely to have their employers contributing to their retirement fund than women, and the share of men who were entitled to paternity leave (89%) was higher than the share of women who were entitled to maternity leave (77%).
Women fill most domestic work roles, and women occupy only 12% of craft and related trade jobs. They are underrepresented in several industries in South Africa. There is one woman for every seven men employed in mining, one of every six men working in construction and one woman for every three men in agriculture.
In addition, female entrepreneurs also face challenges. Not only are women are less likely than men to have access to financial institutions, but they are also less likely to be entrepreneurs and face more disadvantages when starting businesses. In fact, in 40% of economies, women’s early-stage entrepreneurial activity is half or less than half of that of men.
The global pandemic created additional challenges for women in the workplace. PwC’s Women in Work Index found that around five years of empowerment progress was lost due to the pandemic and increased the unequal burden of care carried by women, causing more women than men to leave the labour market.
Bhushan Sethi, Joint Global Leader, People and Organisation at PwC, says: “Women carry a heavier burden than men of unpaid care and domestic work. This has increased during the pandemic, limiting women’s time and options to contribute to the economy. In the labour market, more women work in hard-hit human contact-intensive service sectors – such as accommodation and food services and retail trade. With social distancing and lockdowns, these sectors have seen unprecedented job losses.”
Although PwC’s study focuses primarily on women in OECD countries, there are similar patterns in South Africa. The pandemic has disrupted hundreds of thousands of women’s lives, as well as putting a damper on years of progress around gender equality.
“Improving female participation in the labour market will significantly impact the economy. There are huge benefits from getting more women in productive, well-paid jobs,” says Sethi.
Benefits of female employment
Gender inequity has significant economic benefits. Research by Accenture found that by upskilling more women and creating a culture of equality, South Africa could unlock R319 billion into its GDP.
For a start, women bring different skills and perspectives to the workplace, including different attitudes to risk and collaboration. This has been found to increase the financial performance of companies. At a national level, closing the gender gap could increase GDP by an average of 35%, according to the World Economic Forum.
Research has shown that women and men complement each other in the production process, creating an additional benefit from diversifying the labour force. Higher productivity has been recorded in teams with more women in them, resulting in increased wages for both men and women.
However, female economic empowerment has far-reaching implications. It increases women’s rights and gender equality, allowing them access and control of resources; control their own time, lives and bodies; and increased agency and meaningful participation in economic decision-making.
In addition, better opportunities for women to earn and control income could contribute to broader economic development. According to the International Labour Organization, women’s work may be the most important poverty-reducing factor in developing economies.
Women are more likely than men to invest a large proportion of their household income in their children’s education. This has enormous potential to change the poverty cycle, as increasing women’s and girls’ educational attainment contributes to women’s economic empowerment. Education is critical for women’s and girls’ health and well-being and their income-generation opportunities and participation in the formal labour market. Increased educational attainment accounts for about 50 per cent of the economic growth in OECD countries over the past 50 years.
Women’s economic participation is an important factor in reducing gender-based violence, says Minister for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.
“We are fighting for women to get more economic employment to access that which makes them do the things they do best. As a government, we have committed to taking tangible action to ensure that 2026 economic justice and rights are granted to women and girls. Women’s effective economic participation is integral in ending the scourge of gender-based violence,” she says.
Women’s economic empowerment is one of the pillars of South Africa’s National Strategic Plan of Gender-Based Violence and Femicide.
Mapping out economic participation
President Cyril Ramaphosa has reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supporting and growing female participation in the workforce.
“We are focusing on the economic empowerment of women. Not only is this an important part of the fight against gender-based violence. It is also a fundamental matter of social justice and essential if our economy is to draw on the potential of all our people,” says President Ramaphosa.
The president has also committed to making greater progress in awarding at least 40 per cent of government procurement for women-owned businesses.
Last year, President Ramaphosa said that the Presidency, along with departments such as the Department of Women, Social Development, Small Business, Rural Development and Land Reform, and the National Treasury, had mapped out a strategy to achieve 40 per cent preferential procurement in the public sector.
“Public procurement accounts for 9 %of GDP, which is about R500 billion annually. Of this amount, 12% went to women-owned enterprises in the first and second quarter of 2021. Government, working together with industry, has started building the capability of women-owned businesses to submit proposals to provide goods and services in the public and private sectors,” he said.
An example of this is a framework by the Western Cape Human Settlements Department. This initiative invites bids from women and youth contractors in engineering and construction to quote for projects under the Department. These include general building; civil engineering; electrical engineering works, infrastructure; landscaping, irrigation and horticulture works; and steel security fencing or precast concrete fencing.
Women have also been given access to land to increase their participation in the agricultural sector. In 2021, 54 000 of the 206 000 hectares of state land released (78 farms) were made available to women beneficiaries. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development aims to allocate at least 50% of allotted state land to women.
“For as long as women shoulder the greatest burden of poverty, for as long as they are more likely to be unemployed, for as long as they are paid less than their male counterparts, for as long as they struggle to start businesses, for as long as they face discrimination in the workplace, for as long as women confront these and other challenges, our vision of an equal and just society will remain elusive,” said President Ramaphosa.