Fix the real world, then imagine a new one

In the final response of our New Frame, New Economy forum on women in the economy Kgomotso Makhupola says we must not lose sight of the struggles women face in the here and now.

Imagining new and better worlds is important. We need a magnetic north that will guide the compass we will follow from where we are to where we should be.

Nthabiseng Moleko does a good job of outlining the gendered inequalities in South Africa’s labour market, and paints a convincing, if dismal, picture of the country’s macroeconomic position. She also starts to suggest where our economy should be headed if we hope to free women from their now entrenched marginalisation.

But if where we want to go is important, it must never come at the expense of where we are. We cannot lose sight of the immediate economic struggles women face and what it will take to win them in the here and now.

The myth of equal pay

Given that they were largely employed in sectors like retail and domestic work, women make up the majority of the victims of Covid-19 job losses.

But there are also important historical and cultural factors leading to the economic exclusions of women. They have long been faced with the triple threat of unemployment, poverty and inequality. Exclusions based on their class position and race compound this.

The jobs available to women in the economy are predominantly in unskilled fields, such as domestic and farm work, and the retail sector. This comes out of a background in which women’s access to education has been stymied, as they were expected to run households and take care of their children while many of their male counterparts attended school and university. This frustrated the meaningful roles they were able to play in the economy and society.

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And even when women have the opportunity to get educated and gain similar qualifications to their male counterparts, they suffer huge salary disparities. The notion of equal pay for work of equal value is a myth in the South African economy. 

Women also face the scourge of violation in their workplaces. Men in senior positions often don’t consider their qualifications and abilities, and women are instead sexually exploited and asked for sexual favours if they hope to rise through the ranks.

As a country, we are also struggling for fair representation of women in the executive positions men still mainly occupy. Research has shown that there is less than 5% female representation in executive positions across all sectors, which is among the many things that require attention and correction.

A broken legislative landscape

And this brings us to the immediate questions of what infrastructure is available to address the struggles women face, and whether or not it is working.

The South African government has enacted a number of laws to emancipate women from the shackles of poverty. But, despite the implementation of transformative laws, women still struggle for access and recognition, and their gender still counts more than their capabilities in their efforts to become business people and entrepreneurs.

The Commission for Gender Equality, with which Moleko will be very familiar, still struggles to monitor those failing to implement these laws, and even more so in holding them to account. 

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One example is the Maintenance Act of 1998. The legislation was enacted to support women in situations where their partners failed to take full responsibility for their children. But the law is failing. Men have found a way of circumventing its prescripts by resigning and changing jobs. The justice system then struggles to track them down and hold them accountable to their families.

Maintenance is one among many struggles. Another demands that we put in place proper systems to monitor and interrogate how both public and private entities will be held accountable on employment equity and transformation targets. To achieve any of this, ongoing discussions are needed between government departments dealing with labour and justice, the Commission for Gender Equality, trade unions and non-governmental organisations.

Organisations responsible for labour matters should focus on coming up with transformative policies that will favour women in order to afford them an opportunity to be skilled and to attain executive positions.

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