System resets are needed to stop the regression of women’s equality in the wake of COVID-19

Working Student

The perspective that patriarchy is a construct created by men to oppress women effectively implies that we need to destroy it in order to give women a chance to be successful.  However, stopping men from being successful is not the solution. If we do that, we will continue to get what we have; the highest unemployment in the recent history in South Africa. 

Our failure is that women are not being equipped to effectively win.  Leave the men to run well while enabling women to run even better may mean that our economy can actually grow.

We should be driving home the message that women are capable and can be massively successful. But, for more women to be successful, they need to identify and harness their power, get educated, and prepare to change the world.  

In August, being Women’s Month, we heard positive stories of women movers and shakers achieving great things, of efforts being made to address inequality and gender pay gaps in the workplace, of women rising above adversity to get educated and find jobs. 

This is reassuring and confirms that we should view women empowerment from a perspective of developing inner strength as opposed to the perspective of them needing intervention in order to have a chance of success. Perhaps the mantra we are seeking is; “I am, therefore I do, therefore I have” versus “I have, therefore I do, therefore I am”.  

One step forward, two steps back

South Africa was making some reassuring gains in advancing equality for women in the workplace. But, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely stunted the slow-gathering momentum. More women have lost their jobs compared to men, with women accounting for about 2-million of the 3-million jobs lost during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020[ii]. A year later in March 2021, women’s employment was still down by about 8% while men’s employment was back to normal. Women who are employed are working less hours per week, while men, you guessed it, are back to normal.[iii]

While the COVID-19 pandemic has undone some of the gains that were made for employment and equality of women over the past two decades, it has also exposed structured fault lines in the country which have had serious knock-on effects, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable women. 

Of the country’s unemployed, according to Statistics SA, black African women are the most vulnerable demographic group with an unemployment rate of 38.5%, followed by coloured women at 26%. Women have been impacted harder by the pandemic because they tend to earn less, have fewer savings, work in the informal economy, and comprise the majority of single-parent households. Unfortunately, the burden of childcare mostly falls on women so the closing of schools and early childhood development centres disproportionately affects them. When there are children to care for, feed and home school, it’s mostly women who step-up to the plate and that means less time to find work or take on more hours. 

The disproportionate weight of childcare responsibilities born by women dragged them down in other ways. Fewer of them could access the COVID-19 Social Relief of Distress Grant (SRDG). Why? Because the conditions of the grant were such that it could not be accessed along with another grant like the Child Support Grant (CSG). Effectively, unemployed women were penalised if they were also the main caregiver to a child and were claiming for a CSG. The conditions of the SRDG, which partially excluded women and highlighted the snags that come with ignoring gender roles, will have to be revised if it is reintroduced. 

Gender roles need questioning

Traditional gender roles that emphasise women as primary caregivers aren’t entirely a bad thing. It is a commonly held view that women are natural caregivers and maternity has immeasurable value in society. But, it is when this role is undervalued and the overemphasis leads to the exclusion of women from work, education and participating in economic activities that it becomes a big point of concern. This has been amplified in the wake of the pandemic. 

Females were more likely to cite “family commitment” as a reason for not attending school than males (17.1% compared to 0.3%)[iv], according to Stats SA. It unemployment figures also show that in both Q1: 2020 and Q1: 2021, more than four in every ten young females were not in employment, education or training. 

Looking at the impact of COVID-19 on female unemployment worldwide, several reports show that more women than men have lost their jobs. So, this is not unique to South Africa. The industries in which women typically work have been more severely impacted by lockdown closures such as hospitality, retail and domestic services. Women are also segregated into low-wage occupations and the informal sector where they lack social protection.

It is time to reset the system to deal with these inequalities. This includes some serious efforts to address the inequality in childcare responsibilities, the inequalities that exist in the opportunities that women have to participate in the job market, the inequalities in the access to education and the unequal balance of single-mom households. Perhaps we should also be brave and question if the traditional light penalties on men for having children out of wedlock could be contributing to the disproportionate single-mom households.  

As long as women, as the primary caregivers to children risk their jobs when the schools close, and as long as they continue to be employed in the most vulnerable sectors with the least structural support, it will only get worse.

The effects of the pandemic will be felt by women and girls for years to come unless their employability and marketability for better paying-jobs is improved through equal access to education, skills development opportunities, and funding for women-owned businesses.

So, what does action look like and how does it differ from lip service? Well, at the height of the pandemic last year, we launched a Working Student Programme managed by our skills development facilitation business, ProudAfrique Human Capital. It aims to address the issue of employability by equipping students with life and work readiness skills to improve their employability in the formal job market. Students work while they study and receive mentorship, allowing them to qualify with a degree or postgraduate qualification, with work experience and without debt. Currently, we have 12 young women on the programme who are proving that coming from a disadvantaged background does not determine or limit potential. 

Additionally, our Intombazane Development Trust, whose beneficiaries are young black woman under the age of 29, gives small, owner-managed businesses the opportunity to invest in the development of South Africa’s next generation of female leaders while achieving legitimate, compliant B-BBEE ownership without the risk of fronting. 

Our view is that including women cannot be a simple bean-counting exercise. Instead, it should be a concerted commitment to ensuring that when women become part of an organisation, their integration is meaningful and their employability is sustainable. Through these initiatives, we hope to do more than just pay lip service to supporting women in pursuing and achieving success. We want to see women escape the cycles of poverty and dependence that has held them in its grip for generations.


About Gestalt Growth Strategies 

Gestalt Growth Strategies is a trusted business strategy and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) consultancy.  Established in 1998, Gestalt uses original and proven business transformation models to help companies unlock business growth and shareholder value through B-BBEE.