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Gender inequality persists in the South African workplace

Mark Hearne

Results of the 2014 MasterCard Index of Women's Advancement show that gender inequality towards women at work remains. The overall index score of 73.5 for 2014 is marginally higher than the outcome of 73.4 in 2013 and 73.3 in 2012. However, a score of 73.5 means South African women at work are still not equal to men, as a score of 100 indicates gender equality.

The index tracks the progress of women towards gender equality according to three indicators:

  • Employment (workforce participation and regular employment),
  • Capability (secondary and tertiary education), and
  • Leadership (business owners, business leaders and political leaders).

In the area of 'employment', South Africa's score of 85 remains unchanged from last year. This score is determined by workforce participation (72.2) and regular employment (105.1). In 'capability', South Africa retained its gender equality score of 100, confirming that women have equal access to basic and advanced knowledge assets, compared to men.

However, participation in economic activity remains low, as illustrated by the 'leadership' indicators:

  • For every 100 male business leaders there are 57.5 women, and
  • For every 100 male business owners there are just 25.5 women.

In the seven years that the index has been conducted, the number of female business owners decreases each year, while the number of their male counterparts increases. The index also revealed that for every 100 male political leaders, there are 69.7 female leaders.

The findings in this index echo those reported by the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor for SA Report, which shows that the gender gap between male and female entrepreneurs is significant:

  • In 2013, 58% of entrepreneurs in South Africa were men, compared to 42% who were women.

South African women have equal access to secondary and tertiary education, and regular employment opportunities appear to be more available to women than to men. These factors lay the essential foundations of economic empowerment and financial independence.

However, it is clear from this year's index that South Africa still has significant progress to make before it achieves gender equality in the area of leadership. This is particularly true regarding the development of female business owners and political leaders.

In many countries, cultural norms result in women bearing primary responsibility for childcare and domestic responsibilities, either in addition to their paid work or as an alternative to entering the workforce. As noted in a recent report published by the International Finance Corporation, this means that women's productive and earning potential is not realised, and they are less likely to participate in political and public sector development.

Across the 26 markets in Asia Pacific, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa included in the survey, South Africa ranks third behind New Zealand (77.9) and Australia (76.0). This shows that the inequality – of women at work - to men is a global issue.

Research indicates that improved gender diversity in the workplace benefits companies operating in emerging markets as much as in developed markets. Needless to say, as gender equality transforms companies, it benefits countries as well. As we work towards strengthening South Africa's economy, progress towards gender equality in the areas highlighted in the index should remain an ongoing focus area.

Mark Hearne is the head of business development at MasterCard, South Africa, an organisation that he has been working for during the last five years. He has an MBA – specialising in strategic marketing and finance – from the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.