South African women demand equal opportunities in the workplace – proposed new legislation

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March 2014 brought new hope for women struggling to get recognised in the workplace when the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill was adopted in the National Assembly. The Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities tabled the document last year in an effort to eradicate gender bias in the South African job market.

The proposed law will apply to designated public and private bodies that employ 150 or more people, or have a total annual turnover equal or more than that of a small business as defined in the National Small Business Amendment Act (26 of 2003).

What does the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill say?

The idea behind the bill is to aggressively eliminate favouritism toward men in employment ratios. Equal rights for men and women have already been put forth in South African legislation with the Commission on Gender Equality Act passed in 1996; the Skills Development Act passed in 1998; and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000. However, a gender gap of 25% is still prevalent in SA’s professional world.

In accordance with the new legislation, any public or private body with 150 members or more must comply with strict gender regulations in members. Half of employees in decision making structures has to be women, leaving even small and family owned businesses with more than 150 employees in a predicament if they have a male dominant boardroom. 

In the case of companies with less than 150 employees, the gender regulations take effect if their annual turnover exceeds a particular limit stipulated by the bill. This guideline was borrowed from the Employment Equity Act in order to maintain consistency.

The act also addresses educational opportunities for women, and the 35% discrepancy in salaries between female employees and male colleagues at the same level.

The Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill calls for business owners who do not comply to new legislation, to be fined or criminally prosecuted. The government hopes to implement the act by 2015.

How can legislation of this nature be necessary?

With similar laws already in place, and South Africa’s effort to achieve equality since the implementation of democracy in 1994, why is there even still a gender gap to address?

Sandra Burmeister, CEO of executive search firm Amrop Landelahni, illustrated the severity of the problem when she pointed out, “Women [in South Africa] effectively earn in a full year what men earn in eight months.”

We are no exception in this regard though. A preference towards male employees shows in numbers and remuneration across the world. The United states were showing promise with gender equality when President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Today the American workplace is still predominantly male, and their women also earn 35% less than male counterparts.

Every initiative helps

It makes no difference whether South African women are working admin jobs in Durban, retail in Cape Town, or reaching the C-suite in Johannesburg, their input is just as valid, and their hours just as long as the men in their field. It is unfortunate to need laws to ensure professional gender equality, but the bias won’t go away until we address it properly.

Klaus Schwab, executive chairperson of the World Economic Forum, spoke out about the absence of women at the WEF meeting in Davos this past January. Of the 2 500 attending delegates, only 17% were women. The low turn-out of women happened despite a quota system requiring nations to send at least one female representative for every four men.

According to Schwab, “Countries will need to start thinking of human capital very differently – including how they integrate women into leadership roles. This shift in mind-set and practice is not a goal for the future, it is an imperative today." 

This article was brought to you by Career Junction, providing career opportunities for all South Africans.

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