Women are still as underrepresented in the labour force and in management positions as they were four years ago. This is according to the annual MasterCard Worldwide Index of Women’s Advancement, released earlier this month.
The survey showed that there has been little change in employment participation rates among men and women — about 48% of women are engaged in the labour force compared with 82% of men.
These numbers have remained fairly static with only about a 1% difference in the past four years. In Australia 69% of women participate in the labour force compared with 80% of men.
The reasons for women’s low employment in South Africa are multifaceted.
”The unemployment rate is much higher for women than it is for men. That in itself discourages women from joining the labour force,” said Dr Miriam Altman, executive director of the Centre for Poverty, Employment and Growth at the Human Sciences Research Council.
According to Altman, the chances of young South Africans finding a job are about 50-50, but the odds are even less for women, who face more barriers to finding work.
”Culturally, the expectation is that women will look after the children. About one-third of young women are HIV positive and a large proportion of women live in rural areas where there are fewer work opportunities,” she said.
Altman said that to improve women’s participation in the workforce, the country would need to encourage them to get into non-traditional work, raise education levels and improve healthcare.
For mothers leaving rural areas to find work, ”we need to make it safer, easier and cheaper for women to integrate into the city,” she said.
Experts say that statistics on labour force participation can be skewed by increased unemployment rates — if men lose their jobs, women are seen to be making up a larger percentage of the labour force.
The number of women who have given up looking for work is not reflected and neither is whether women are employed in skilled or unskilled work.
Carlene van der Westhuizen, a senior researcher in the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, said a study carried out between 1994 and 2005 showed that women got slightly more than half of net new jobs created.
”But most of those jobs were low-skilled or unskilled — for example domestic work — so they didn’t necessarily benefit from skilled or semi-skilled jobs.”
For academics, a more accurate way of measuring women’s advancement in the economy is by looking at average earnings and the gender wage gap.
”Generally we’ve found that women earn less than men for the same kind of work,” Van der Westhuizen said.
Women already in the labour force struggle to make headway in their careers. The survey found that only about 36% of women worked in managerial positions.
This number has dropped is the past three years.
Dr Elaine Salo, director of the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria, said she suspects this may have something to do with the global economic downturn.
”There’s a gendered ideology in the world of work that still considers women as having increased employment risk,” she said.
Women are more likely to be accommodated when profit margins are high but when the financial climate cools employers tend to retain the men in their companies as they see women as carrying the ”gendered risks” of getting married, getting pregnant or having to move for their families, Salo said.
South Africa needs to ”play catch-up” when it comes to including women in the workplace, she said.
Oddly, women outstrip men when it comes to enrolment in tertiary education. The discrepancy between the percentage of women who study further and the percentage of women in management positions, though consistent with other countries surveyed, is glaring.
Altman said one reason for the discrepancy could be social — women often study for traditional roles such as nursing, psychology and other caring professions.
”They tend not to go into management-type jobs. They’ll become teachers or nurses. Degrees like commerce or engineering are more likely to lead to management positions,” she said.
Salo gave an alternative view: ”It might be that women feel they need more skills to get the same jobs as men. It could also be that tertiary institutions are more sensitive to the need for equality [than businesses],” she said.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2008 Global Gender Gap Report — which rates gender equality in terms of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, health and survival — Norway, Finland and Sweden are the countries with the smallest gender gap overall.