‘Houses before spouses’: only in Barbie Land? - Female home ownership is growing despite the challenges

Statistics show that women are outnumbering men as first-time home buyers. PICTURE JAKOB OWENS / UNSPLASH.

Statistics show that women are outnumbering men as first-time home buyers. PICTURE JAKOB OWENS / UNSPLASH.

Published Aug 13, 2023


Johannesburg - “Hi, Barbie.” And so starts a new day in Barbie Land where, unperturbed by the real-world patriarchy bias, Barbies rule in their pink mansions with a mantra of ‘‘houses before spouses”.

In the hit movie by the same name, Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) live in a world where both genders accept that women determine their own lives, choosing a career, becoming president, chief justice or construction worker while maintaining the appearance of full make-up and attractive clothes.

While the movie is, in part, a study of patriarchy’s effects in the real world, in South Africa, we are seeing a taste of the fantasy Barbie Land, with about 60% of South Africa’s residential housing stock now being owned or co-owned by women. Women now also outnumber men as first-time home buyers.

Corroborating this, Carl Coetzee, chief executive of BetterBond, says more women bought property on their own between 2015 and 2020 than men or married couples.

Reports indicate that single women in the 31- to 35-year-old age bracket represent a large percentage of the total home buyers in the South African market. However, while single women have certainly made great strides in narrowing the homeownership gap, they are not immune to the after effects of the pandemic, rising interest rates, affordability issues and an economic crisis, all of which have highlighted how the road to affordable homeownership remains uphill.

Despite the post-covid aftershocks, South African women’s increasing presence in the housing market shows that the homeownership rate of households led by women is rising while the homeownership rate of households led by men is falling.

It appears part of the reason leading to higher homeownership is that women are delaying having children and getting married in favour of building their careers. According to Stats SA’s marriages and divorces report from a decade ago, the median age of brides in 2011 was 29, while the average age in 2001 peaked at about 25 – 29. Today that stands at age 33.

Also, the slew of apartheid and anti-women laws in the past made it difficult before for women to get a foothold in property.

Unlike Barbie Land, where it goes without saying that Barbie owns her own dream house, in South Africa in the past, those laws and customs hindered women from making strides in the property world, and prevented them from owning or inheriting land giving women the status of children and keeping them dependent on their fathers, brothers and husbands.

In 1962, when Barbie became a homeowner (the first bachelorette dollhouse pad went to market), living as a young, single woman in a house she owned, in real-life South Africa, this was unheard of as patriarchal and racist laws persisted, and women could not even inherit property from their fathers.

In fact, it was only a mere three years ago, in 2020, when a landmark ruling in the Durban High Court saw 72-year-old Agnes Sithole score a legal victory that not only provided her a share of her husband’s estate but was heralded to protect an estimated 400 000 black elderly women in South Africa.

Facing impoverishment when her marriage ended, Sithole challenged a discriminatory law dating back to the apartheid era under which black women married before 1988 were denied ownership of family property, as all matrimonial assets belonged to the husband.

The new ruling stipulated that all such marriages were to be declared in community of property, where the property of either spouse is seen as joint property regardless of who paid for it.

And while things look better today and rulings like in Sithole’s case help, black people “continue to be significantly under-represented in the ownership of property, whilst administrative and financial constraints restrict the ability of black people to participate in the property market”, says the SA Institute of Black Property Professionals at their recent Transformation In Property annual convention.

Added to these hurdles, the United Association of SA (UASA) also says the closing of gender pay gaps in the country still has a way to go.

South Africa, it reports, has a stagnant median gender pay gap of between 23% and 35%. So, the gender pay gap – or the difference in wages between men and women for the same type of work or work of equal value – remains a stumbling block in achieving gender equality in South Africa.

Despite various pieces of legislation aimed at preventing gender discrimination in the workplace, it persists, says the UASA, and the Covid-19 pandemic also increased the projected time to close the pay gap from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.

According to the World Economic Forum, while the global parity score of 2023 has recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the overall rate of change has slowed down significantly. Even reverting back to the time horizon of 100 years to parity projected in the 2020 edition would require a significant acceleration of progress.

Why this is particularly important in homeownership is that with greater economic freedom, women can choose more expensive properties and also participate more in the property world, even using their property to become landlords and make money from homeownership. In other words, they can gain financial freedom.

Homeownership and having access to land secures women’s financial freedom and gives them individual agency and autonomy, says the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), which has in the past brought three cases to court to secure the property rights of disadvantaged women.

“The potential of women to own and control land fosters their power of self-determination; eliminates dependence; and enables them to participate meaningfully in decision-making structures,” says the LRC.

In the movie Barbie, the patriarchy is seen in full action in the real-world. South Africa could, in its own way, be the blurring of Barbie Land with the real world as women make strides in the property world and young black women make strides in creating generational wealth by owning property.

Despite the successes – when one thinks that it will take a predicted 100 years to close gender pay gaps – one is left asking, is change happening fast enough?