South Africa has made significant progress in regard to gender equity since 1994. The draft Gender Equality Bill published on 29 August is intended to accelerate this process.
“Promoting gender equality is an important part of this country’s commitment to transformation,” says Sandra Burmeister, CEO of the Landelahni Recruitment Group. “The question is whether we have the resources to meet the proposed 50% targets.”
The draft Gender Equality Bill aims to empower women and prohibit unfair discrimination. It proposes 50/50 gender equality and is applicable to organisations of all sizes in the public and private sectors.
“Equity targets can assist in increasing representation of women in the workforce, provided they are realistic,” says Burmeister.
“The black economic empowerment industry charters have set specific gender targets by sector. This allows industries to set realistic, achievable targets for sectors where there are simply not enough suitably-qualified women. However the new Bill shows no distinction between industries.”
The Bill states that public and private entities must eliminate discrimination and empower women, unless they can put forward “good cause” for non-compliance due to justifiable inherent requirements of the sector. However, the bill states explicitly that such “good cause … does not include lack of capacity, scarcity of skills or limited resources”.
“Setting realistic targets depends on the pipeline of candidates available for entering the workforce in a particular discipline,” says Burmeister. “Before we start raising the bar, we need to look at the pipeline of available skills.
“A blanket target of 50% women will pose difficulties for sectors where two-thirds of workers are technical – such as in construction, infrastructure and mining. A fixed 50% target is not realistic since there simply may not be enough women to fill half the positions in all types of jobs. It puts enormous pressure on finding technical people.
“In engineering, for example, only 2.8% of all professional engineers are women. Women have accounted for only 21% of all engineering graduates over the past 13 years. Insisting on a 50% target simply results in the few women engineers available being poached around the system at ever escalating salaries, while increasing the ire of their colleagues.
“Favouring women who are skilled for technical jobs only makes sense if such people are available. The objective is to empower and increase the number of women in gainful employment. That means hiring skilled people for the job.
“If we want gender empowerment to succeed, we must take into account the pipeline of young women coming into the professions and set targets appropriate to this.
“Globally, there are significantly fewer women working in technical and engineering disciplines. Nowhere in the world do women represent 50% of engineers or artisans.
“On the other hand, industries such as retail, financial services and healthcare could accommodate targets higher than 50% since there is a much greater availability of suitably-qualified women in these sectors.”
The Bill gives wide powers to the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to issue a compliance notice to an entity which she believes is not complying with legislation, with harsh penalties for directors who fail to comply. “It is difficult, in principle, to support legislation that is so broad and which gives a minister this kind of unfettered power,” says Burmeister.
“South Africa has had progressive gender legislation for more than a decade. BEE regulations, industry charters and the Employment Equity Act have had a positive impact on increasing gender equity at every level of the organisation.”
According to Commission for Employment Equity annual reports from 2001 to 2011:
· Women in top management increased from 13% to 18.7%
· Women in senior management increased from 21% to 27.7%
· Women in professional and mid-management showed a marginal decline from 43% to 42%
· Women in skilled positions increased from 40% to 46.2%.
South Africa leads the way in regard to women directors compared to the United States (16.1%) and the United Kingdom (15.0%). The country is well ahead of its BRICS colleagues: China (8.5%), Russia (5.9%), India (5.3%) and Brazil (5.1%).
“We have been ahead of the game with our focus on gender equity,” says Burmeister. “The draft Bill itself lists 36 existing pieces of legislation that aim to eliminate discrimination against women and provide for the empowerment of women.
“The first step, however, is to align our educational systems to support more robust gender equity. Only in this way can we empower women and achieve 50% workplace equality.”
· Commission for Employment Equity’s Annual Report 2011-2012, published 11 September 2012 (and previous annual reports dating from 2001).
· Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Draft Bill, published 29 August 2012.