In an era characterised by many challenges and opportunities, the theme ‘Accelerating Socio-Economic Opportunities for Women’s Empowerment’ for this year’s Women’s Month resonates deeply. Women’s socio-economic rights include the right to access economic opportunities, health care, education, and freedom from abuse and discrimination. As South Africa has committed to the globally agreed sustainable development goals, which include the furtherance of gender equality by 2030, it is crucial to prioritise the empowerment of women, recognising that their growth is the cornerstone of societal advancement. The quest for women’s empowerment is not just a mere campaign, but rather a transformative movement that has the power to reshape the world into a more equitable and inclusive place. The theme of this year’s Women’s Month celebration provides an opportunity to reflect on the imminent challenges facing women and find potential solutions to boost their resilience and position them to take advantage of available socio-economic opportunities.
Historically, South Africa has experienced significant challenges in achieving gender equality. Although commendable strides have been made by the increasing number of women who hold seats at the national, provincial, and local levels of government and the private sector (women hold 26,5% of the top positions and 37,2% of senior management positions, respectively), the gender gap is far from being bridged. Also, the reality of unemployment among women – estimated at 80,6% – paints a stark picture of untapped potential and unrealised aspirations in values of inclusivity and striving for progress, particularly among women in vulnerable communities grappling with limited employment opportunities. Women have consistently had a higher long-term unemployment rate than the national average. This is important, because it is not only the women who are impacted by unemployment; it reverberates across families, communities, and the country’s growth trajectory is also affected.
Bias against women
Moreso, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the already-present inequalities South African women confront, aggravating socio-economic challenges and jeopardising progress made towards gender equality. Industries with a significant female representation, such as hospitality, retail, and domestic service, are frequently the first to feel the effects of economic downturns, leaving women economically disempowered and economically marginalised. Rebuilding the economy with a strong emphasis on accelerating socio-economic opportunities for women is more important than ever.
Several factors stemming from a combination of unconscious bias, socio-cultural norms, gender-based violence and discrimination, systemic inequalities, work-life balance, gender pay gap, and inadequate access to education and skills development contribute to this unsettling reality. The 2023 Gender Social Norms Index from the United Nations, covering 85 countries, revealed that 9 out of 10 people of all genders have a bias against women. The report also pointed out that half of the people in 80 different countries believe that men are better political leaders, 40% believe that men are better corporate CEOs, and 25% believe that it is acceptable and justifiable to beat their wives. Data specific to South Africa indicates that 97,3% of people in the country have fundamental biases against women, especially on issues of intimate partner violence, political power, and economic power. These findings paint a picture of a lack of change and ingrained social and cultural norms that curtail women’s chances in the workforce, politics, business, and family settings. With this reality, we run the risk of delaying women’s socio-economic empowerment if the psychology of a male-dominated society is not dismantled.
Women often struggle to strike a balance between their work and family responsibilities, which can hinder their career advancement. This is particularly worse for women in South Africa, where more than 40% of South African homes are headed by a single female breadwinner and 41,7% of children live with single mothers, which further increases and imposes the burden of childcare responsibilities. These women are stepping into roles traditionally dominated by men, breaking down barriers and proving that they are capable leaders, providers, and nurturers. Nationwide, the amount of unpaid care and domestic work performed by women continues to be three times greater than that of men. This is a harsh reality where women are the ones who suffer the most from extreme stress and exhaustion, hiding behind the façade of resilience and tenacity. This brunt of overwhelming stress and exhaustion is evident in the Deloitte report of May 2022, which revealed that 40% of South African women feel burned out, 51% stated that their stress levels were higher than a year ago, 43% reported poor or extremely poor mental health, while 40% anticipate leaving their current positions within the next two years, with 31% citing burnout. Worse still, the pervasive issue of gender-based violence (GBV) also contributes to burnout among women. The constant fear and anxiety that accompany the threat of violence impact their mental well-being and exacerbate stress levels.
The UN report also highlighted a 39% pay difference between men and women, although women are more educated and skilled than ever before. In South Africa, the United Association of SA (UASA) reports that South Africa’s median gender pay gap has remained stable between 23% and 35%. Women in South Africa make up to 35% less money than their male counterparts for doing work of equivalent worth, yet almost 38% of households rely on a woman’s salary for survival. Even highly educated and qualified middle-class women, particularly those employed in the private sector, still experience the gender pay gap since the old boys’ network continue to favour men.
In paving the way for women’s empowerment, access to quality education and vocational training must prioritise women so that they have the relevant skills to secure long-term employment and financial independence. Education is a building block for accelerating socio-economic opportunities for women to navigate obstacles and pursue their goals. By actively encouraging girls and women to pursue careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), we can eliminate barriers and build a more inclusive and innovative workforce. Also, evidence suggests that promoting women’s entrepreneurship can play a vital role in women’s empowerment, sustainable development, and the betterment of society. To achieve this, there must be deliberate efforts to break down barriers impeding women’s entrepreneurship, such as access to finance, access to markets, and lack of support. Furthermore, the South African government should expand the zero-rating of VAT on goods and services that benefit households. Similarly, elements of affirmative action such as tax breaks for women-owned businesses, lower tax rates on property owned by women, higher tax thresholds for women, and tax discounts for childcare costs.
Fight for women’s empowerment not women’s alone
In addition, the burden on working mothers can also be greatly reduced by investing in social support systems, such as affordable childcare and parental leave, allowing them to engage more fully in the labour market. Encouraging shared parental responsibilities is vital to creating a balanced and supportive environment for working parents. By acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges women face, they can build resilience by using the challenges they encounter as stepping-stones for personal growth. This will level the playing field and create a society where opportunities are accessible to all, regardless of gender. In addition, the public and private sectors can promote gender diversity at all levels and prioritise gender pay equity to create an equitable work environment.
Most importantly, the fight for women’s empowerment should not be left to women alone. Both men and women need to collaborate on this journey, as it can be instrumental in finding adequate solutions to bridge the gender equality gap, reduce GBV, and develop gender-sensitive policies. It is also important that those in positions of power should invest in evidence-based solutions for addressing gender issues using cutting-edge research techniques. Finally, reflecting on women’s socio-economic challenges, here are some questions to ponder: (1) are we ready for generational equality; (2) what is our collective definition of gender equality, especially in the South African context; (3) are we crafting inclusive systems to foster women’s empowerment; and (4) how conscious are we of the gender-specific problems that limit women’s exploitation of socio-economic opportunities? As South Africa commits to accelerating women’s empowerment, we must adopt a transformative mindset, viewing women’s empowerment as a shared responsibility and collective action. With the right supportive structures, women’s access to economic opportunities will improve and better position them to take the bold actions needed to foster the attainment of socio-economic goals. Now is the time to leave no one behind. We need to live in a society where every woman’s dreams and aspirations can be realised. Together, let us pave the way towards a more equitable and prosperous South Africa for all.