In 2013, South Africa ranked relatively well at 17 out of 136 countries on the World Economic Forum’s annual global gender gap index. However, its 2013 ranking is quite misleading and somewhat discouraging, as in 2009 South Africa was ranked sixth. There is also still a huge gender pay gap in South Africa. Women earn nearly a third less than men, according to the latest tax statistics published by the South African Revenue Service. The large pay margin is mainly evident in the higher earning bracket. South African women hold only 3.6% of chief executive, 5.5% of chairperson, and 21.4% of executive management positions, according to the Business Women’s Association of South Africa’s Women in Leadership Census 2012.

The role of a woman is one that comes with great challenges, obstacles and responsibilities. Family responsibilities, possible sexual harassment in the workplace and promotion prospects all have an impact on the career choices women make. As Janine Hicks, researcher at the Commission for Gender Equity, puts it, “There are a variety of invisible elements.” These elements relate to a male dominated environment where men are taken more seriously and women have to work much harder in order to “earn their stripes”.

“In South Africa, employment equity legislation encourages flexible and creative work options for women, but companies often focus on the numbers rather than on creating enabling environments for women,” says Hicks. It seems to be a case of companies not genuinely wanting to promote equality, but merely seeing it as a box that they are required to tick.

The burden of childcare responsibilities is a major factor that may hinder a woman’s job performance. Although companies could take it upon themselves to enable women to more successfully balance career and family responsibilities by introducing more flexible working hours or considering the provisions of childcare facilities within the workplace, companies are not seen to be taking this seriously.

Two companies who are making significant inroads in this, however, are two of the biggest names in the world – Apple and Facebook. The age at which most men and women are at the peak of their careers also happens to be the same age most women begin to have children, and so the question of career or family arises. Choosing family puts women at a major disadvantage work-wise as time set aside for their children is time not being spent on building their careers. In order to try to allow women to have a successful career and family, these companies have included egg freezing onto their list of company perks. By supporting women by freezing their eggs during their prime childbearing years, they are enabling women to have children at a more mature age once they have reached their desired career success. Women can therefore take comfort in knowing that they do not have to rush to start a family and can focus on their chosen career path. By doing this, these companies believe that they will be attracting more female staff, helping them to fast-track their career and also retain them longer.

Although seemingly the answer to every working woman’s woes, this move has sparked a lot of debate. Some claim that these companies have missed the point as it is not childbearing that hinders their work performance, but the juggling act that is performed when they return to work and try to raise their children at the same time. This is according to an article written for The Guardian titled “By offering to freeze their employees’ eggs, Apple and Facebook make it clear they don’t know what women want” by Harriet Minter. In another article titled “Female tech CEO: egg-feezing ‘benefit’ sends the wrong message to women”, the CEO of Palo Alto Software, Sabrina Parson, says that “Women should, instead, have an equal shot at success regardless of how they spend their personal lives and should be able to focus on their careers and families simultaneously. If we allow working moms to integrate their family and work lives, women will have a much greater chance to succeed.” Such a decision is an unconventional road that could make a difference in narrowing the gender gap in the workplace.

This should not be a case of women being seen as equal to men, as equality does not necessarily mean sameness. It is rather a case of the differences between genders being acknowledged and the workplace accounting for these differences so as to provide women with equal opportunities. The idea of gender equality in the workplace being a requirement and not an earnest goal needs to be discarded, not only because it is a human right but because gender equality impacts the economy in such a positive way. “Only those economies who have full access to all their talent will remain competitive and will prosper,” says Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.

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