How long must we wait for Gender Equality?

True gender parity in the workplace will only be realised when there’s equal pay, and women and men are equally represented in political leadership, company boards and senior management; writes Yonela Diko.

South Africa has made great strides in addressing the inequalities within our society especially between women and men since 1994. Prior to our first democratic elections, black women in particular, were oppressed for their gender, race and class. The ANC and government have had a greater determination and resolve on the issue of Gender Equality, with the ANC strictly ensuring that in all its structures, there is a 50% woman/male representation.

Despite these great and commendable efforts, no South African woman will disagree that advancing rights and opportunities for women is “the great unfinished business of the 21st century”

At a release of the Gender Statistics in South Africa 2011 report, Statistician General Pali Lehohla summarised the status of the women in the country by saying: “Women experience far higher unemployment, they experience a far lower participation rate [in the economy]. In comparison to their male counterparts, a larger percentage of women are illiterate and fewer completed schooling”.

The report also stated: “The proportion of women with tertiary education who are employed is almost 10 percentage points lower than that of men with the same level of education. Furthermore, women with tertiary education earn around 82 percent of what their male counterparts earn. This picture has not changed much since. Gender Equality, however, is a global challenge that needs a global resolve and determination.

The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s Charles Taylor, she was celebrating the publication of her autobiography, Mighty Be Our Powers. A guest asked her how empowered women could help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in other places across the world. Her response was four simple words: “More women in power.”

This could not be truer. In fact, when Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating officer of Facebook and author of Lean In, was pregnant with her first child in 2004, she stumbled on something very important. After sprinting (more like crawling) across the parking lot into a female bathroom heavily pregnant, she concluded that her then company, Google, needed designated parking for expectant mothers at the front of each building. The next day, she marched in – to see Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their office, she announced that the company needed pregnancy parking, preferably sooner rather than later. Sergey looked up at her and agreed immediately, noting that he had never thought about it before.

Now get this, Larry was honest enough to admit that he had actually never thought of a need for parking for expectant mothers at the front of each building. Sheryl pondered, as one of Google’s most senior women, whether she did not have a special responsibility to think of this. But like Sergey, it had never occurred to her until she got pregnant. The other pregnant women must have suffered in silence, Sheryl thought, not wanting to ask for special treatment. Or maybe they lacked the confidence or seniority to demand that the problem be fixed. Having one pregnant woman at the top made the difference. 

In the clearest sense, this means, without women in the highest positions of power, there is actually no hope for women. Not because Men don’t care, but because as Google’s Sergey Brin said, sometimes things of concern to women just don’t occur in a man’s mind or his circle of concern.

The Late Ruth Mompati, former Mayor of Vryburg, who also served as a Member of Parliament in the National Assembly, as quoted by the Sunday Times on 24 September 2000 said, “Oppression of women is not a consequence of white domination. Don’t think it will disappear when apartheid does.”

Today, in 193 UN member states in the world, only 15 are women headed (pew research 2017). Of all the people in parliamentarians of the world, only 22.8% are women (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2017). When it comes to top jobs in the corporate sector, boards and senior management, there is only a 15-16% female representation (Sheryl Sandberg Ted X 2010). The numbers have not moved since 2002 and they seem to be going in the wrong direction. Even in the non-profit world, where one would think women are better represented, only 20% run these organisations.

According to the World Economic forum, Gender equality is 170 years away. 170 years.!!!!. At least until Dec 2015, women could still not vote in three countries and participate only in restricted elections in many more. The fact that women’s suffrage has only just been enacted across 12 countries since 1980 speaks to how new the movement really is on a social timeline.


Given the well-quoted figure that equality for women in the labour force would add $28 trillion to the global economy by 2025 (McKinsey Global Institute report 2017), we cannot wait that long. Providing girls with just one extra year of secondary education can increase their potential income by 15-25%. Already, women are the world’s most powerful consumers, controlling 65% of consumer spending, with an economic impact growing year after year. It is estimated that their incomes will increase from $13 trillion to $18 trillion by 2018. But what is holding women back? Women are held back by traditional beliefs, with social norms continuing to push women into traditional roles. Women feel like they have to “get over” the bad behaviour of males in the workplace, rather than speak up (52% of global respondents). Men feel they must change their behaviour when women walk in the room (64%). (World Economic Forum Annual report 2017)

How will we know when true gender equality is achieved in the South African workplace? It will be when there is Equal pay at all levels of service delivery in the public sector, as would equal numbers of women achieving promotions at work or being employed in positions appropriate to their qualifications, skills and training. Parity of representation in company boardrooms and among the nation’s chief executive officers would surely be another important indicator that, 23 years into our democracy, this country is serious about treating women fairly and equally in the workplace.

Someone very senior in the Foreign Office in Britain was heard saying that they were under pressure to appoint women as ambassadors. You can find that people are perfectly capable but sometimes they lack the experience or skills that you need to have. And you are not doing the organisation or [the women] themselves any favours by appointing them. To which a woman activist responded, ‘If this is true, then it would be a landmark day in the quest for women to be treated equally in the workplace. That there may be some women operating at the highest level of the UK government who are not up to the job and have only been appointed because of their gender ought to be a cause for some celebration. For hundreds of years, the governments of this country and the biggest boardrooms have been awarding the best and most financially lucrative jobs to incompetent men’.

How do we fix this?

Firstly, research tells us that women drop out of the workforce at some point, for various reasons. So we need to make sure we keep them in the workforce. The message other strong and activist women like Leymah Gbowee have been saying to other women is, don’t stay in the shadows. Refuse to stay in the shadow. Break out about your dreams. Break out about your passion that you have for changing the world. Break out about how you feel about things. Never hold back. Refuse to be in the shadows as you step out into this life. Don’t be shy no matter how crazy it seems to you. That crazy idea may just be the solution for some crazy global or local problem.

Women systematically underestimate their own abilities. They do not negotiate for themselves in the workforce. Studies show that while 57% of men entering the workplace for the first time negotiate their salaries, only 7% of women do that. Success and likeability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women. We need a paradigm shift on this one.

Lastly, we have got to make women seat at the table. Men will play a very significant role in bringing this equality to pass.

Diko is the spokesperson of the ANC in the Western Cape.

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