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The harsh reality of women at work

File picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

File picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Published Sep 20, 2016


After their partners were massacred at Marikana, some women were given work in the mines. And many hated it. The work was physically hard, dirty and dangerous, and they did not want their children to grow up in the underserved settlements around the mines. One said: "My children are being orphaned twice - once when their father was killed, and now that I am not there to help them grow. But what choice do I have?"

While the choices for most women are not so stark, in their working lives many still have only a few oppressive options. The statistics on women and work paint a grim picture.

Women, and especially African women, are far more likely to have no or low earned income. In 2015, over two thirds of African women had either no earned income or got less than R1000 a month.

Women typically have lower incomes than men in the same racial group, although white women have a substantially higher median income than black men. As a result, the income gap between white women and black women is far larger than the gap between black women and black men. The median earned income for African women in 2014 was R2200; for African men, R3250; for white women, R10 000; and for white men, R11 000. The gap has narrowed since 1994, according to Census data, but remains large.

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It's harder for women than men to find a job. Women make up just over half the working-age population, but according to Census data they constituted only 44 percent of all employed people in 2011, up from 40 percent in 1996. In 2015, they held just 41% of formal jobs and accounted for 39 percent of informal employment. In contrast, two thirds of South Africa's 1.3 million domestic workers (who count as neither formal nor informal) were women.

Less likely

Black women are much less likely than other groups to be either entrepreneurs or managers in the formal sector. That said, they have made considerable progress after 1994, especially in the public sector. In 2015, black women constituted 30 percent of managers in the public sector, but just 14 percent in the formal private sector.

Many people assume that these dismal outcomes must reflect lower education. In fact, the average woman has more years of formal education than the average man. Overall, 38 percent of women have at least matric, compared to 37 percent of men. For black women as a whole, women are more likely to have matric and a degree than men. Yet women remain disproportionately unemployed and lower paid.

The position of women with a tertiary degree illustrates the disparities particularly sharply. Some 11 percent of all working age people, and 12 percent of those aged 21 to 35, had a tertiary degree in 2014. For this relatively privileged group, the broad unemployment rate, which includes people who want work but have stopped looking for it, was 21 percent for African women, 17 percent for African men, and 3 percent for whites of both genders. The median income for African women with a tertiary degree was R8700 a month, compared to R10 300 for black men, R12 000 for white women and R15 000 for white men.

A variety of factors disadvantage women in the economy.


To start with, apartheid pushed many women to the least developed parts of the country, where economic opportunities were scarce. Before 1994, the vast majority of African women were forced to stay in impoverished, overcrowded so-called "homelands". Because these regions were essentially designed as a source of cheap labour, they were typically set up far from economic centres, with inadequate land, water, infrastructure and government services.

Despite extraordinarily rapid rural-urban migration since 1994, African women remain disproportionately in these areas. In 2014, 5.3 million African women, or 37 percent lived in former "homeland" regions. Only 35 percent of African men and virtually no one from other races lived there. In these areas, just 24% of women and 30% of men had income-generating employment. Only 45% of households engaged in any agricultural activity, and it was a major source of income for just 3.5 percent.

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Increasingly, women have voted with their feet. From 1996 to 2011, the population in the former "homeland" areas grew just 8 percent, while it climbed 40 percent in the rest of the country - and by 60 percent in Gauteng. The number of women in the former "homelands" rose by less than 20 percent, or 1.6 million. In the rest of the country, it grew by 7.5 million, or 50 percent.

The impact of apartheid residential patterns on women's economic position can be illustrated by a thought experiment. If all women lived in the cities, with the current level of employment there, some 42 percent of women would have paid employment. The actual figure is just 37 percent. That means a million more women would have paid employment than is presently the case.

Women are also more concentrated than men in a few occupations and industries - and those activities tend to have lower pay.

Two thirds of women are employed in occupations where women account for at least 60 percent of employees. Some 30 percent of employed women work as cleaners, domestic workers and beauticians; 20% as retail and clerical workers; 9 percent as teachers and nurses; and 2 percent as clothing workers.


In contrast, men are more diffused across the economy. Only two out of five are in occupations where men constitute over 60% of employment. These occupations are drivers, miners, construction workers, farmworkers and security workers in both the public and private sector.

Sectors where women predominate generally have lower pay. The median pay for teachers and nurses was around R10 000 a month in 2014. The median monthly salary in other occupations that mostly required a degree, where men predominated (for instance lawyers and engineers) was over R20 000.

Even within occupations that women dominated, they tend to earn less than men. In 2014, in nursing, education and cleaning, the median pay for men was between 20 percent and 30 percent a month higher than the median for women.

Low levels of employment and pay for women compared to men, even when they have the same education, can be understood in terms of systemic biases inside and outside of companies. The apartheid workplace was characterised by decision making procedures that were profoundly biased toward whites, and especially white men, when it came to hiring, promotions, mentorship and pay. Management systems and work organisation were hierarchical and closed, giving tremendous power to a few skilled managers and professionals, again mostly white men while disempowering the majority of workers.

The effects of these systems can still be seen in the pervasive secrecy around pay and promotions, which makes it harder to identify discrimination; in the lack of defined career paths for most workers, which means elementary workers in particular have no visible chance of advancement; in the fact that management does not have to explain any of its decisions to workers, so that they often appear arbitrary and discriminatory; and in the failure to enforce minimum standards and find innovative systems to provide benefits for domestic and informal workers.

Labour division

But women's economic difficulties are also rooted in factors outside of the economy - in the household division of labour combined with the way social institutions channel young women into a limited number of occupations and industries.

In 2014, just under a third of women without earned income said they were not seeking work because of household responsibilities, compared to one in 20 men. Some 25% of women who were absent from work said it was because of unpaid family and community work, compared to under 5% of men.

The burden of household labour is greatest for poor women in the former "homelands" and informal housing, where infrastructure is weakest. Without electricity, water and transport, women must spend extra hours fetching water, shopping, cooking and cleaning. For instance, in 2014, 12 percent of African women collected water or fuel, spending an average of two hours a week on the task. That contrasts with 8 percent of African men spending an average of an hour. Non-Africans spent virtually no time on this type of work because almost all had access to piped water and electricity.

Since 1994, government policy has promoted greater access for women to economic opportunities, although it has clearly fallen far short of full equality. Achievements include the following.

- The transition to democracy saw the elimination of overtly racial and gendered laws, including many customary rules that defined where African women could live and limited most women's access to credit, home ownership and a range of economic activities.

- The democratic state vastly improved the social wage (that is, the collection of services that supplements earned incomes especially for low-income households), in particular through social grants for the elderly and children. The grants both increased household incomes and gave millions of women greater control over family resources.

- Wage determinations for domestic and agricultural workers led to substantial increases in pay in these industries, improving conditions for well over a million employed women. Pay for domestic workers almost doubled in the first five years after the wage determination was introduced.

Do more

That said, more could be done to improve women's position in the economy.

First, the state has generally pursued a pro-cyclical macroeconomic strategy, with slower spending and higher interest rates even as the global economy deteriorates. Besides adding to downward pressure on job creation and growth, when government spending grows more slowly than the population, women experience cuts in the social wage. That in turn typically makes caring for households even harder.

Second, the social wage and urban plans should be reviewed holistically to ensure they do more to enable women in particular to engage with the economy. Opportunities include expanding affordable childcare for both pre-school children and after school; promoting the solidarity economy through the Community Work Programme and other measures that encourage community mobilisation and collaboration; and increased social services, more affordable and reliable transport and sites for shops in the rapidly growing new settlements around the metros and mining towns.

Third, strategies to promote new activities could include a focus on sectors where women predominate - in particular value-adding services such as education and healthcare, including in the public sector; support for retail in ways that promote local procurement and improve services for poor communities; and developing institutions in the cleaning and homecare sector that formalise and upgrade employment, including by providing benefits. Genuine agrarian reform could also open opportunities for women in the rural areas to improve their livelihoods, but that would require both that they have equitable access to land and the provision of adequate and holistic access to water, markets, training and inputs.

Finally, the state could do more to address practices that reinforce patriarchy outside the economy, in households and communities. This is a difficult subject for economic policy. On the one hand, the economic paradigm generally neglects factors outside the market, no matter how critical for economic outcomes. On the other, there are debates about how far the state should go in shaping private relationships and traditions. That said, it is clearly important for the democratic government to promote more equitable relations; to avoid reinforcing patriarchal norms that were entrenched under colonialism and apartheid; and to encourage collective action and mobilisation.

**Neva Makgetla is Programme Manager of Trade and Industrial Policy at Trade and Industrial Policy Studies. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.


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