/ 5 July 2023

SA ranks high on official gender equality measures – but that’s not the full story

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The Democratic Alliance has threatened to have President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC’s top six held in contempt of court should the party fail to meet the constitutional court’s Monday deadline. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Gender inequalities persist across all countries and while progress has been widely shown to deliver results for all of society, the actual rates of progress are at best patchy. 

In many cases, previous gains for equality made before Covid-19 were reversed as women felt, and continue to feel, the consequences of the pandemic. There is still much work to be done and the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest report predicts it will take more than 100 years to reach gender parity for all countries covered.

The forum released its Global Gender Gap report just as Stellenbosch Business School hosted the world’s leading conference on Gender, Work & Organizations, held in Africa for the first time, with experts representing some 51 countries. Since gender inequality underpins much of the social and economic outcomes in society it is a topic that business schools are interested in. Relevant and impactful organisational-level research and teaching can help shift the dial. 

The WEF’s index measures gender disparities on four key dimensions: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Gender gaps are captured on 18 indicators to produce a score out of 100. 

Overall, the report again notes the uneven progress and that the setbacks under Covid-19 have been compounded by the state of the world economy and the geopolitical tensions.

The WEF report is a piece of good news for South Africa as the data show it is one of the countries making the most progress over the past year to become ranked 20th in the world. This performance stands out from the rest of the relatively low-performing sub-Saharan Africa region, which is sixth among regions, only performing better than Southern Asia, the Middle East and North Africa regions. South Africa is third in its region behind Rwanda and Namibia. 

The relatively good performance of the country on the political empowerment measure (13th in the world) and in health (29th) helps explain this positive position. 

However, it is not all good news. For some of the individual education measures the country leads the world but its low literacy rate is a drag on the index, as well as people’s lives and means that it ranks 43rd in the world overall. In many countries and regions, women’s progress in political empowerment has stalled so the good news for South Africa on this should be lauded. 

However, South Africa has a relatively low rank of 81st in economic participation thanks to the high levels of wage inequality and low representation of women among managers and senior officials. Unemployment is also part of the problem here with the high levels of joblessness, particularly for those with the lowest levels of education, being a huge challenge. Overall, the country is a good performer in its region, but there is work to do that could help South African women, the economy and society overall.

While the WEF is one of the benchmarks of gender equality in the world, it is important to note that indicators and measures only tell part of the story. 

The forum uses information across broad themes and the measured outcome is a result of what is included and excluded, as well as the quality of the data available. Any comparative work necessarily makes compromises on the available data and includes indicators that can be measured across most countries most of the time. Furthermore, the forum does not include the measure of gender-based violence — on which South Africa is very poor. 

Overall the latest WEF results provide a rather pessimistic outlook for gender equality around the world. 

South Africa has made progress in some areas but the economic inequalities that could change the lives of many women and their families remain stubborn. That some of the previous gains before Covid-19 are being recovered while others do not show change, demonstrates how there is no room for complacency. 

The report shows that inequality is a moving target. The gender gaps in vital new areas such as women’s underrepresentation in leadership and sciences will likely lead to new inequalities as economies pivot in the fourth industrial revolution. 

Given the large shares of female graduates from South African higher education and business schools, these inequalities demonstrate an underutilisation of national talent and it means that gender inequality is not only a persistent challenge for women themselves but also something holding back society, the economy and the country.

Professor Mark Smith is the director of Stellenbosch Business School.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.