Women’s workplace gains slow as Covid-19 crisis strikes

The Covid-19 crisis threatens to undo what little gains women have made in the workplace. In South Africa, like in most other parts of the world, this transformation has been hard-won. The recently released 20th Commission for Employment Equity report attests to this.

The report for 2019, like its previous iterations, shows a slow but steady increase in women’s representation in management. But it also shows that their representation continues to be concentrated in the lower, more vulnerable levels of the workplace.

According to the report, in the past 18 years, the percentage of women in top management almost doubled, from 13% to 24.4%. But more than half of the share of top management positions held by women were occupied by white women (13.2%).

Generally, women are less likely to access promotions at management level. But, when they do, it is white women who are given this opportunity at a much higher rate than any other race group. 

In 2019, 16.2% of all people promoted into top management were white women, while only 9.5% were  black African women. Just 5% were so-called coloured women, despite this group representing 4.4% of the economically active population and white women representing 3.8%.


Earlier this year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned that the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic aftermath would have a far worse effect on women’s employment than men’s. 

In a June 2020 report the ILO said that, in contrast, to previous crises, women’s employment is at greater risk than men’s, particularly owing to the effects of the downturn on the service sector. 

“The gender gap in the proportion of informal workers in hard-hit sectors is far greater, with 42% of women working informally in these sectors at the onset of the crisis, compared with 32% of men,” the ILO report adds.

These effects have already been felt in South Africa. According to the first set of findings from the National Income Dynamics Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey, released in mid-July, the rates of net job losses in the first part of the lockdown were much higher for women (-26%) compared to men (-11%).

The Employment Equity report shows that women dominated in five main sectors: accommodation and food service, arts and entertainment, education, health and social work, and finance. 

Despite dominating in these sectors, women were still more likely to be represented in the middle and lower rungs of these industries.

For example, women represented more than 70% of the permanent health and social work workforce, but they were concentrated at the three lowest occupational levels. 

There were also disproportionately more women workers occupying temporary positions (80.6%) in this sector. 

Temporary workers are less likely to have access to job security and workplace rights than their permanent colleagues.

Earlier in August, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration revealed that the food-service industry is the second-worst hit sector in terms of retrenchments. 

The Employment Equity report shows that women occupy 56.7% of positions in the food-service sector, but they are largely represented at the semi-skilled, unskilled and temporary levels.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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