YONELA DIKO: Against every one of the odds you can think of, women remain on top

OPINION

The month of August always provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the journey women have travelled in trying to make real their rights to equality and fair treatment in all spaces of human existence. It is an opportunity not only to look at the great challenges that remain but to also celebrate all that has been achieved through pluck and sweat and yes, tears.

Throughout the month, women have acknowledged in various spaces and platforms, rightfully so, all the challenges and strongholds that continue to stand in the way of their progress. Despite all these seemingly insurmountable challenges, women have not lost sight of the strides and triumphs that they have registered over time, against all odds, and the overall growth and development this has brought to all women and all societies.

Every movement forward women have made - every painstaking victory, every success - they have had to fight for it. Women today are able to vote, that was not always a given. Women's presence today in the workplace is a given, that too was not always acceptable to those who have always allocated themselves divine providence of deciding where women belong.

The change with regard to the presence of women in the workforce can be said to be the most comprehensive transformation of the past century. Women are working and have brought great benefits to productivity in the workplace.

WOMEN'S REMARKABLE SUCCESS

At the beginning of the 20th century, women did not work, both a part of cultural domination that subjected women to only be child bearers and households appendages unfit for the real world. Women were also seen merely as aids to men and existed only to support these men. Still women, especially single women pushed the boundaries.

According to Dr Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve Board (2014-2018), in the earliest 20th century, even in countries like the United States, only about 5% of married women worked outside their homes and 15% of them unmarried. Of course, as soon as single women got married, they were also likely to leave work outside the home.

There were legal restrictions that prevented women from working outside the home and in enrolling in institutions of higher learning, especially in various disciplines. This meant that when women finally went to work in numbers, the only jobs left for them were low-paying labour that did not require much education but was also safe for women. This meant there was therefore no incentive to work after getting married, given the kind of work that was available to women and the support of a husband that a married woman could count on.

In South Africa for example, the oldest University in the country - the University of Cape Town - which opened its doors in 1826, only accepted women as students a hundred years after it had opened its doors, which meant women were locked outside institutions that could equip them with skills to strengthen their demand to do the same work as men.

By the 1970s, however, the work scene had changed completely. Women were going to school, graduating from high schools and universities and demanding work that justified their talents. Women were not begging for their place in the workforce, they had gone out to educate themselves for it; they were willing to train for it and put in the hours.

As women became more educated, especially towards the end of the century, they began to move into more secure and well-paying professions: medical doctors, lawyers, professors and leaving the clerical work and support services which were akin to seeing them still as mere helpers of men rather than professionals in their own right. Naturally, the gap in earnings also declined significantly.

By 2018, women in South Africa accounted for 43,8% of total employment in the second quarter of 2018. According to data from the report Gender series volume I: Economic empowerment, 2001–2014, women comprised 32% of Supreme Court of Appeal judges, 31% of advocates, 30% of ambassadors and 24% of heads of state-owned enterprises. Women became breadwinners, they began to graduate more than men, they ran businesses and constituted the biggest chunk of consumer power.

Given that only a hundred years ago women could not even be allowed within the institutions of higher learning, these are remarkable accomplishments. Even more remarkable in South Africa as the plight of black women has also been tied to their race and while other women may have received their emancipation a hundred years ago, black women had to continue to fight.

WOMEN CONTINUE TO BE THE FACE OF EXCELLENCE

After a century of being excluded from mainstream work, of having to prove themselves over and against a hostile male-dominated world, women have become more than just equal partners in the economy, they have gone on to put a woman face in many positions they have rightfully held.

In South Africa, former public protector Thuli Madonsela performed such a remarkable job that it was difficult to imagine the job held by any other person but a female. Today, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is the newly elected female Speaker of Parliament and without a doubt, this goes back to Frene Ginwala who did an outstanding job as the first female Speaker of Parliament, followed by Baleka Mbete who also delivered outstanding work so that she had to come back again, even though her latter days were much more difficult. Mapisa-Nqakula may well put an indelible female face into the job.

Even the private sector has seen the might of women who push forward, inch by inch, ensuring that every opportunity given to a woman is sprinkled with the great woman magic. Women such as Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, currently the chief executive officer of Naspers South Africa and Nonkululeko Nyembezi-Heita, the current chairperson of the JSE board, have left stars behind them everywhere they have laboured, leaving a bright light to shine on women that follow them.

CHALLENGES

As soon as women proved themselves capable of giving the same output as men, issues of pregnancy and timeout for childcare rose up, and again women had to fight for these to be challenged and legislated. Then women had to endure sexual harassment from men who objectified women and did not see them as equal partners at home and now at work, and again this had to be confronted and legislated. Workplace needed to be safe for women and women had to fight to make that happen against people who did not really want them there.

The pay gap between men and women for the same work remains glaringly high. Women also continue to be underrepresented in many fields that have high-earning potential and are concentrated at the lower end of the food chain. Women are also five times less likely to be promoted to senior jobs than men. Women alone continue to be burdened with the life balance of work and home responsibilities. There remain very few women engineers and IT specialists and other specialised fields while women dominate the low-paying retail space.

According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey released by Statistics South Africa in 2018, using the expanded definition of unemployment, the rate of unemployment among women was 7,5 percentage points higher than that of men.

WAY FORWARD

Women are a force to be reckoned with in the workplace. Their presence has been transformative; it has increased productivity by multiple folds and has given the world's GDP a big leap.

This can only mean not giving women the opportunities and support they need to be represented in all fields, particularly the technical fields, robs all economies a huge percentage of GDP growth. We therefore need specialised training programmes geared towards increasing the number of women in technical fields.

We also need to make sure that the challenges of childcare for women are resolved so that women don’t have to make the hard decision of either working or taking care of their children. So adequate, affordable and safe childcare institutions that give parents peace of mind and proper child development must be made available either by the government or companies women work for or both.

Ultimately, society must change and both men and women must share equally in responsibilities at home, particularly when it comes to childcare. This would also help males to make work policies that suit everyone.

Women have not let any of these challenges stand in their march forward and it is to them and their resolve and resilience that today so much has been accomplished.

Phambili Zimbokodo!!