South Africa must do more to empower women

Only 11% of the construction industry work is made up of women according to the Construction Education and Training Authority (CETA).

This statistic, an illustration of the skewed gender ratios that continues across industries, is not good enough. For real change to happen, decisive intervention is needed. Empowering women should not be viewed as a nice to have or a corporate social investment project, but rather as an imperative and an opportunity for driving overall economic growth.


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The World Bank emphasises that equal access to resources and economic opportunities to women enhances productivity and economic growth. This implies that there is both an economic and a business case for gender equality. Empowering women to participate equally in the global economy could add $28 trillion in GDP growth by 2025 according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In Africa, most women entrepreneurs run micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) – more than 30% of SMMEs are owned by women. Female-owned businesses contribute significantly to the world economy generating millions of new jobs and spurring economic growth. The cherry on the cake is that the WEF found 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, environmental sustainability, consumer choice, innovation and decision-making on a wider set of issues. The perennial question then becomes – how can women’s participation in the mainstream economy be accelerated? Perhaps the place to start is focussing on the creation of an enabling environment that encourages women’s participation.

While we understand that the gender gap cannot be obliterated overnight, progress must start with the political will in both a private and public sector that embraces the need to substantially increase the number of women in business, in boardrooms and the workplace.

An enabling environment means creating partnerships across business, government and education to promote traditional male-dominated sectors to women in a way that changes the perceptions thereof to both genders. For example, education curriculums must be designed so that girls find non-traditional sectors such as construction and mining, appealing. But we cannot stop there, we must underpin our education efforts with tangible actions including bursaries and career path programmes, among others so that the advancement of women becomes a holistic endeavour.

Take the case of environmental health management graduate Mpho Sono, who started TMT Cleaning Hygiene in 2001. After struggling along for several years, she joined a business accelerator in 2016. Over two years on the programme, TMT Cleaning Hygiene grew by 20% and now employs 390 workers, most of whom are women. The growth has provided employees with on and off-the-job training, employee handbooks, written employment contracts, health and accident insurance, a pension fund, productivity incentives, and salary increases. Hanging perceptions of course is one element, but we must also ask how we can make women the centre of development in industries that continue to have significant challenges in generating equality.

The African Development Bank found that there is a 34% gap in average profits between male and female-owned firms in Africa and a 65% gap in South Africa.

The finance gap for women-led businesses in sub-Saharan Africa totals R636 billion. In South Africa, the gender financing gap is evident as well. While similar proportions of men and women entrepreneurs applied for funding post-acceleration (42% versus 38% respectively), men were more likely to receive funding, particularly when looking at funds above R250 000.

When it comes to accessing businesses development support, research by Impact Hub, found that globally there is a gender gap in acceleration, with only 13% of applicants being women-led teams compared to 52% male-led and 35% mixed teams. This means that women entrepreneurs are less likely than their male counterparts to access and be able to benefit from the business, network, and investment support crucial for growth that accelerators provide.

What can South Africa do now to ensure not only greater women representation in business and the workplace but also in a position of leadership and influence?

 Education and training

Vast opportunities are available if their skills are developed. Years of disproportionate development has meant that women in the sector are under-skilled compared to their male counterparts. Clearly, the largest chunk of support must be aimed at women-led businesses and South Africa needs to prioritise financial and business development programmes like Sono and TMT Hygiene. Training must be customised for their situations and needs and incorporate the specific challenges women face in business. How we train women who are running companies must be different because they must face an unconscious (and in some cases conscious) bias that still pervades many industries. There needs to be stand-alone programmes specifically aimed at enrolling and building women at all levels. Whether it be business incubators or artisanal schools, if no space is allocated all other interventions will amount to lip service.

Make women empowerment policy

Progress is being made. President Cyril Ramaphosa noted in his State of the Nation Address that cabinet had approved a policy that 40% of public procurement should go to women-owned business. He noted that several departments have started implementing this policy and they are making progress. The CETA, for example, has launched a programme that stipulates that all apprenticeship programmes must have 50% women participation. In the workplace, we need to circumvent bias through affirmative hiring policy, which will help organisations drive equality and reap the benefits of diversity.

Such public and private sector commitments to female empowerment through policy will see a significant increase in the number of women who break through the glass ceiling of male-dominated industries and business in general. When diversity and gender equality become policy and are included in the organisation’s strategy, they will thrive.

 Encourage entrepreneurship

Business must launch programmes exclusively for women-owned businesses, these ring-fenced programmes are key to making a concrete difference. Today’s SME and entrepreneurship culture empowers women to be their own boss and pay their own salary, defining how they want to work and making the balance of career and family life easier. Entrepreneurship presents a path for women to close the pay gap and rise to leadership positions, on their own terms. Running their own companies also offers the opportunity for women to collaborate with and hire other ambitious, like-minded women, fostering a new generation of women in leadership roles.

We have seen tangible and real examples of women who are excellent in the construction sector only because they have been given a chance. That is all they ask.

Shawn Theunissen of Property Point.