Women’s Month is Dead, Long Live Women’s Month
By Prof Mark Smith, Director: Stellenbosch Business School
So gender equality is a job done. We have some of the most advanced constitutional and regulatory frameworks in the world that protect again discrimination. We have more or less 50% women and men students in our universities. We have similar shares of women and men working in the economy. We have many government and non-government organisations and policies promoting diversity.
So we don’t need women’s month, or a women’s day, right?
Yet, look a little more closely and the facade of parity and progress is not quite what it seems. Women are not taking the top jobs. Where women are on boards, they are frequently in non-executive positions and not those wielding the power and decision-making responsibilities. In the labour market, women are less likely to have full-time or permanent jobs. And where they are in work, women often do jobs that are less valued than those where men make up the majority occupants. And when it comes to the more equal sharing of unpaid work in the home, there is even further to go.
Gender inequalities remain for a number of reasons. Countries like South Africa, just like those in the northern hemisphere, can have excellent laws and regulations outlawing gender discrimination and unequal valuing of jobs. Yet when it comes to implementation, a lack of political will, systems and/or resources for enforcement render those laws weak or even toothless.
Beyond effective implementation and enforcement, the challenge is that these laws need to be accompanied by the will for change, along with determined action from a range of stakeholders. There needs to be a commitment to challenge and upend long-standing cultures and norms.
Unfortunately, the pernicious effects of sexism, discrimination and stereotypes that impact women’s day-to-day lives mean that gaps in pay, gaps in promotion opportunities, and gaps in lifelong career trajectories, persist.
One of the biggest challenges is segregation, whereby women frequently find themselves working alongside mainly women and men work mainly alongside other men. Such patterns are not “natural” but do permit inequality to persist through the unequal valorisation of “women’s work” vs “men’s”. Jobs, where men predominate, tend to be valued above those where women are more likely to find themselves. This pattern occurs at the bottom of the labour market – compare male-dominated security guards to female-dominated shopworkers – just as much as at the top. Consider male-dominated finance managers to female-dominated human resource managers, for instance.
We can also see the dynamics of this gender segregation in action. A study published 20 years ago demonstrated how the perceived attractiveness of an occupation determines which sex predominates. As the attractiveness falls, women tend to enter and men begin to leave, and relative working conditions and value deteriorate. This pattern is still evident today if we look at the relative social and economic value of previously male-dominated jobs such as bus drivers, teachers, or even general practitioners.
The challenge of gender inequality is that it is a moving target. Just as legal frameworks close one gap and organisations make progress against a gap; new patterns of inequality open up. Furthermore, in a country such as South Africa, these dynamics of gender inequality overlap or intersect, with racial inequalities creating additional challenges.
What is required is consistent action and vigilance to support policy and legislation. That includes business and political leaders being prepared to prioritise closing gender gaps as part of their mandate from the organisations and communities they serve.
It also includes women being aware of the consequences associated with the “choices” they make, whether they be in studies, first jobs, candidature for promotion, or even life partners.
And it includes men being women’s allies in promoting gender equality. It is not only the responsibility of women to promote and advance gender equality, just as it is not the sole responsibility of people of colour to promote transformation of our society.
So when people ask why we need a women’s day or women’s month, what do we say?
We can say that we do, because gender equality is far from achieved. We can say that we do, because gender equality is a moving target that needs vigilance, collaboration and many supporters. And we can say yes, we do, because the continued gender inequalities on many fronts clearly show that it remains a man’s world the other 11 months of the year.