How Women empowerment can drive economic growth



Published Feb 15, 2021


By Celeste Le Roux

While women empowerment is undoubtedly benefitting from being a key talking point on the public agenda over the past few years, 2021 cannot simply be another year where gender equality is confined to ladies’ lunches and empty platitudes. Things must change.

While there are many commendable women empowerment programmes sponsored by both the public and private sector it is debatable how effective these really are. It is now time to take stock of the multitude of programmes in the market and use the data to guide us on which elements are most effective to providing women with real opportunities to compete in business and in the workplace. At the moment we are doing “lots of stuff” but based on the statistics the numbers of women breaking through the glass ceiling in both business and male dominated industries are nowhere near where they need to be to resemble real tangible change.

South Africa has massive socio-economic disparities, and we are falling further behind the curve in lifting more Black people out of poverty. Black women particularly are part of the most marginalised groups, not rising near fast enough into the mainstream economy and continuing to be most vulnerable to slow economic growth that continues to hex our country. As women we want our seat at the table, but we also understand that we need to be empowered to be there based on competence and experience.

In the sector in which I operate, construction, black women have only 16% of business ownership in a sector with 44% black ownership. In addition, of the 58% of black owned businesses accessed public sector contracts only 24% were awarded to women-owned business. Construction remains a sector that has created significant cultural barriers to the participation of women. This tradition can no longer be an excuse to exclude women, or for failing to support the women who have risen above the status quo.

Government programmes and corporate talk shops play a part but until we drastically increase the numbers of women through the doors of quality education, training and funding opportunities among others, we are not going to move the dial in any significant way. Women empowerment is a numbers game – until corporate and government initiatives are tangible and underpinned by significant funding, South Africa will continue to shoot itself in the foot economically.

The World Economic Forum states that societies with greater gender equality not only offer better socioeconomic opportunities for women, but also tend to grow faster and more equitably. There are gains in poverty reduction, consumer choice, innovation and decision-making, among others. ​In short if women benefit, the whole country benefits.

Business especially must put its money where its mouth is. We are a medium sized national business that decided some time ago that we need to act and not be part of the mindset that relies solely on the government for the answers. We needed to be part of the solution. In 2019, we founded the React Training College which is part of our vision to uplift and develop marginalised individuals, especially women, to be able to provide for their families. Today about a third of our trainees in the plumbing college are women. What is now needed is for big business and government to make available funding that allows more South African women to access training that will empower them to become economically active in traditional male dominated environments.

Recently one of our partners, business accelerator Property Point, an initiative of GrowthPoint Properties, launched a women’s only programme where they adapted their two-year programme to focus on the challenges that women entrepreneurs face with the aim of helping to more women service providers in the male-dominated construction and property sector. Such initiatives take commitment and political will. True entrepreneurship provides answers to address unemployment and poverty and bringing to the fore the empowerment of women.

It is time for corporate South Africa and government to put its energy and money into programmes that make a real difference – those that guarantee a measurable impact and fosters an environment of equality of opportunity. Investing into proven learnerships, training programmes, incubators and bursary schemes for women will not only advance equality we so desperately need but concurrently create the economy South Africa needs in order to thrive.

Celeste Le Roux is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive at React24


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