Be Bold For Change
#BeBoldForChange is the campaign theme for International Women’s Day in 2017. Change, is the only mechanism through which women will attain equality; necessitating overhauls to outmoded belief systems, social structures, political frameworks, economic disparities and other barriers hindering women’s progress. Undoubtedly, being bold sows the seeds for alternative possibilities, but the realisation of transformation requires understanding the complexities of inequality, particularly in the 21st Century.
Today, women in South Africa enjoy many more rights than their predecessors, but gender discrimination is still prevalent in society. Evidence from Statistics South Africa, indicates that on average women earn less than 23% of their male counterparts salaries and approximately 80% of the female labour force occupies low skilled positions. At senior management level, according to the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s 2015 census covering companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, women accounted for 29.3% executive managers, 21.8% directors, 9.2% chairpersons and 2.4% CEOs. If a person’s level of education is a key factor to access executive roles, then there are stark inconsistencies between the numbers of women in leadership positions when compared to women’s educational achievements, given that the ratio of female to male enrolments at tertiary institutions is 58% to 42% (Council of Higher Education, 2013). The ensuing article is the first in a series that aims to celebrate prominent and ordinary African women’s milestone achievements and in the process delves into social, cultural, political and economic dimensions of inequality that hinder women’s paths to success.
This series of features is based on conversations with women occupying key positions in South Africa and across the continent (leaders in politics, academia, business etc…) who participated in discussions on the author’s weekly radio programme called ‘Womanity – Women in unity’, a program that campaigns for progress and development amongst women across Africa.
If a person’s level of education is a key factor to access executive roles, then there are stark inconsistencies between the numbers of women in leadership positions when compared to women’s educational achievements, given that the ratio of female to male enrolments at tertiary institutions is 58% to 42% (Council of Higher Education, 2013).
Overcome the burdens of poverty and patriarchy to achieve gender equality – Commissioner Thoko Mpumlwana, Deputy Chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality
Commissioner Mpumlwana emphasises that gender equality is society’s responsibility, but patriarchy and poverty impede its progress. She describes South African society as “highly patriarchal, highly religious and highly traditional”, and it is, “incredibly difficult to infuse the concept of gender equality in a society, which says women are inferior”. Although South African courts are beginning to demonstrate intolerance for violations against women’s rights under thinly veiled excuses of cultural practice, legislation alone cannot erode decades of entrenched traditions.
Legislation alone cannot erode decades of entrenched traditions
Women’s rights have been positively reinforced, through the deployment of international instruments, like the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Commissioner Mpumlwana categorically states that the first 2015 Millennium Development Goal, to Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger (which have been divided into two individual goals, namely No Poverty and Zero Hunger in the subsequent Sustainable Development Goals), remains Africa’s greatest struggle. She draws attention to a holistic poverty alleviation model that partners families with government through accountability agreements. “If you are serious about fighting poverty you can’t take it at a superficial level, it has to zone into a family level. Each household must make a commitment in terms of where it wants to go. The government is there to hand hold and ensure that a basket of available services are taken advantage of and the family is assisted.” For these types of initiatives to succeed government departments need to work together more effectively, be aware of communities’ needs and invest in people to help themselves.
Commissioner Mpumlwana shares communal and social perspectives affecting gender equality. Her parting message inspires female empowerment, to make the world a better place for all. “As a South African, I have experience that tells me we should not give up. We were not created to be subservient, we should take opportunities that we have, we should be in solidarity with one another and never leave other people in conditions that are not in line with our human rights and dignity. We have to work very hard together to change the lives of people in worse off situations and attain gender equality. Women are in the majority in the continent and if women are empowered the continent will turn around”.
Attitudes towards gender must be adjusted in the home as well as the work environment – Professor Irma Eloff, Dean for the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria
Professor Eloff brings to light psychological gender effects and raises several implications of gender-based thinking, extending from childhood to adulthood. Our perspectives of gender commence in childhood: shaped through socialisation, influenced by role models, reformed in response to experiences and entwined with a range of other factors. Professor Eloff recalls her own upbringing, by a single mother, remarking that for a long time, she didn’t realise that women could be anything else but strong. “I was raised by a single mum, so it never occurred to me that the world should be anything else. I was at university when I started to realise that perhaps there are places where women aren’t in charge”.
The responsibilities that women shoulder in the home have spill over effects that impact on their career development. Equality in the home as well as the workplace must be considered. Several studies demonstrate that career women with supportive partners, who share family responsibilities, benefit directly from this support, as does the wellbeing of the entire family unit.
To help avert home life versus work life conflicts Professor Eloff pragmatically suggests lifestyle integration. “We often think of work life balance as if they are diametrically opposed concepts and I think it is really helpful to think of them as integrated. It is your life with work being a part of it. It need not be a trade off between the two. We are very fortunate, we live in good times for women but there is still a lot of work to do”
Success in the work environment is often an outcome of competition between individuals vying for position. However, an element that escapes reasonable thought is the application of gendered thinking, both by individuals exerting actions, as well as people judging these behaviours. To illustrate this phenomenon we discussed the relationship between likeability and achievement and how these factors are positively correlated for men but negatively for women, with men being admired for their accomplishments, but women being resented. “When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” (Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook). Under these conditions women are obliged to weigh up their emotive needs against fulfilling their career ambitions, ultimately impacting on their professional success. One has to ask how many other compromises, like these, women experience as a consequence of gender discrimination?
The future of gender equality requires agendas to counter discrimination against women – Dr Vuyo Mahlati, former President of the International Women’s Forum South Africa
Dr Mahlati reflects on the significant progress South African women have made since 1994. In the very first state of the nation speech, on 24 May 1994, President Nelson Mandela declared, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression. All of us take this on board that the objectives of the Reconstruction and Development Programme will not have been realized unless we see in visible practical terms that the conditions of women in our country has radically changed for the better, and that they have been empowered to intervene in all aspects of life as equals with any other member of society.”
Prior to 1994, women accounted for less than 3% of parliament members. After our South Africa’s democratic election in 1994, 27% of parliament members were women. In the 1999 national election, women constituted 30% of elected public representatives. In 2009 female representation had grown to 45%, and in 2014 this figure dropped three percentage points to 42%, placing South Africa 9th in the world in terms of female representation in government (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016).
Women parliamentarians were pioneers in the early days of South Africa’s democracy. Dr Mahlati acknowledges the extent of work these women invested into the constitution and legislation for South African women, “With the dawn of an era, you are actually reminded that you have not been part of the picture and you have to start from scratch to come up with laws and regulations.”
Although significant gains have been made by women in the public sector, advancement in the private sector has not been as progressive. Looking to the future Dr. Mahlati says, “The challenge now, twenty years later, is for women to redefine their agenda. In the past it was easy for us to say we are oppressed. Now we recognise that our struggles require a more focussed approach because we also form part of the inequalities”
“The challenge now, twenty years into democracy, is for women to redefine their agenda. In the past it was easy for us to say we are oppressed. Now we recognise that our struggles require a more focussed approach because we also form part of the inequalities”
Women’s rights are human rights. Governments have a duty to promote and protect our rights – Dr. Pregs Govender Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission
Dr Govender highlights the responsibility of the South Africa government towards women’s rights, with respect to upholding human rights and providing services that promote and protect them, as declared by the South African Constitution. The constitution should be used to protect people, especially the most vulnerable. South Africa continues to develop or adjust legislation to improve the lives of its female citizens, for example, the Unfair Discrimination Act, Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, the Employment Equity Act, the Domestic Violence Act, the Child Maintenance Act, the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Dr Govender underlines the debilitating effects of poverty, describing poverty as “institutionalised violence”. “The majority of people who are poor do not experience their human rights on a massive scale. Poverty is an attack on the power of those people who grow up in environments where they are not able to experience and assert their rights. So a girl growing up in poverty is going to be denied many rights. Her right to education, food security, dignity, safety, freedom of expression”.
Today, women occupying positions of prominence in business, academia and government are the beneficiaries of rights that were hard won by legions of activists that preceded them. These efforts must not be forgotten, “Yes, the individual effort is important, but individual effort could have resulted in very little, if it had not been for a national, continent wide, global movement to change patriarchy”.
The previous statement reminds us that human attitudes and behaviour are capable of change. If sufficient motivation, purposeful interventions and legislative policies are applied, then issues of inequality may be overcome. The challenge is that gender inequality is multifaceted.
This feature has highlighted various manifestations of gender inequality in contemporary society, whether it is cultural practice, gendered thinking, political and economic repression of women, or the need for policy reform to promote and protect women’s rights. Irrespective of the form it takes, humanity must continue to recognise the traits of inequality throughout society and develop appropriate interventions against it for women to attain equal access to rights, services and opportunities in all spheres of 21st Century life.
Being bold sows the seeds for alternative possibilities, but the realisation of transformation requires understanding the complexities of inequality, particularly in the context of the 21st Century.
Dr. Amaleya Goneos-Malka produces and presents a gender-based radio programme called Womanity – Women in Unity. Follow her on Twitter:@Womanitytalk