Employing more women and paying them equitably will build better businesses and a more just society

Despite having more educational qualifications than men, South African women remain less employed and economically active on average.

Woman addressing other women in the workplace

The fact that young women are 6-8% less likely to be working than men proves Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator’s decade-long hypothesis that more schooling and qualifications alone do not translate into jobs or, in fact, better-paying jobs.

The latest QLFS released this week indicates that for the second quarter of 2022, 47% of South African women were economically inactive.

Over the past year, we have researched youth employment income in South Africa by analysing the three million young work seekers on our SA Youth platform and the Quarterly Labour Force Statistics. Sadly we see that when young women do find work, the stark reality is that they continue to earn less than men. 

In the formal sector, the average income is relatively stable at around R3,500 per month, with growing sectors like Global Business Services and finance offering higher-paying entry-level jobs. However, a gendered analysis of earnings across all occupation types—from sales assistants to software testers—shows that men earn more than women regardless of where in South Africa they work. On average, young men make at least +6%, and up to +12%, more than their female counterparts. 

The gendered unemployment crisis is systemic; addressing it will require targeted interventions and coordinated partnerships. 

And so, the question becomes: what specific actions can business take to address this? 

An excellent place to start is by investing in male-dominated sectors to dismantle gender stereotypes, design job placement programmes with young women at the centre, and actively work to remove barriers that inhibit women from accessing specific jobs. Male-dominated sectors tend to be better absorbers of financial shocks to the economy, whether the Covid- 19 pandemic and, more recently, ever-increasing inflation rates and the other plethora of economic challenges facing the South African economy. 

For example, during the COVID- 19 pandemic, we saw that industries such as plumbing and security services were less affected than female-dominated sectors of Early Childhood Development and housekeeping, which were the first to shut down and then the last to recover. This is why our partnership with the Institute of Plumbing of South Africa (IOPSA) and BluLever Education is such a game changer. The partnership aims to skill marginalised young people using technical skills to prepare them to work as artisans and plumbers. Additionally, underemployed young people are being assisted in gaining a formal qualification through Artisan Recognition of Prior Learning (ARPL) to improve their earnings and career prospects. 

The programme, funded by the British Government’s Skills for Prosperity project, prioritises women with an unequivocal mandate for 50% female inclusion in an industry that currently averages fewer than 3% women. 

Lulama Ntsinde, a mother of three from Bekkersdal, was baking scones and biscuits to sell within her community for a small income and to keep herself busy before she was accepted into the plumbing apprenticeship programme, which will see her qualify as a Red Seal plumber.

Lulama is the only woman at her place of work. She is learning by supporting the team, which includes a lot of tool work, basic maintenance, digging trenches, climbing ladders and carrying geysers.

“Growing up, I never thought I could be a plumber because that’s not women’s work,” she says. “This opportunity is getting me closer to my goal while also helping create a path for women who will come after me,” she says.

Business has a responsibility to devise programmes that encourage women to enter male-dominated industries and ensure inclusion. The work that IOPSA is doing to ensure inclusion is a critical piece of the puzzle. Six months into her training, Lulama fell pregnant. This precipitated IOPSA to write an industry policy on parental leave because you can be pregnant and still a plumber. By actively including women in industries and not merely accommodating them, we will see real change. 

Another way business can be part of the solution is by actively advocating and implementing equal pay for equal work policies. Harambee’s research reports a monthly disparity of R500 in the salary of men and women software testers in the fast-growing tech sector. This makes absolutely no sense— there simply is no reasonable explanation for why employers don’t pay for the job and not the gender in such an in-demand role. If women start with this disparity, we know that they will continue a trajectory of earning less than men – to do the same work – particularly if one considers that our studies have shown that the pay gap widens over time.

Once working, our data shows that young women perform as well as, and in many cases even better than, young men at the same level. In addition, the evidence is clear about the benefits of women’s increased economic and social participation in the economy.

Advocacy for pay equity is critical—and we cannot rely on market mechanisms alone. Employer advocacy is essential to avoid the risk of perpetuating gender inequity. Equal pay for equal work has been shown to have a direct impact on women’s productivity, morale, and retention. Greater gender equality leads to better development outcomes. It contributes to reducing income inequality and providing a more solid base for sustained poverty-reducing growth—and, in turn, increases young people’s ability to withstand major economic downturns like the ones currently being experienced both here and globally. Higher economic participation by women leads to higher spending on schooling for children, with important implications for growth in the long run. In short, more women earning promotes economic growth and a healthy, stronger economy and society.

We must commit to the proven programmes and policies to accelerate equality and increase opportunities for women like Lulama. Without sustained action, we risk wiping out years of effort to level the economic playing field for women.


Published in Mail & Guardian

On Key

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