Is a gender-balanced workforce possible in South Africa?


South Africa needs more women in its workforce, more female role models in science, technology, engineering and maths and more benefits for working parents. In short, the country needs gender equality. But how soon can this be achieved? Writes Gale Shabangu, Inclusion and Diversity Lead for Accenture in South Africa.

In June this year, Accenture announced its intention to achieve a gender-balanced global workforce, with 50 percent women and 50 percent men, by 2025. The organisation currently employs 150,000 women. This is nearly 40 percent of its global workforce. 

Over the past several years Accenture has set milestones on the path to gender equality such as setting a goal to reach 40 percent women new hires by 2017 – and achieving it a year early; promoting its largest percentage of women to the managing director level in 2016 (30 percent); and growing its percentage of women managing directors to 25 percent globally by 2020.

While Accenture may achieve gender parity by 2025, Accenture’s Getting to Equal research of South Africa shows that the choices young women undergraduates are making now are setting them up to enter the workforce with fewer digital skills, less mentoring advice and lower interest in pursuing high-paying jobs compared with their male peers.

However, if today’s female university students in South Africa make strategic choices and gain more digital skills, and if businesses, governments and academia provide crucial support, it is possible that the class of 2020 will be first generation in the country’s history to see the gender pay gap close in their professional lifetimes.

Women are a vital resource in the race to fill South Africa’s demand for talent, increase labour productivity and grow the economy, but they remain woefully underrepresented in the workforce and continue to earn less than men. Furthermore, the fact that more women than men also work in lower-productivity industries further aggravates the divide. 

Women have an important role to play if they can develop their full labour market potential. Accenture’s Getting to Equal research identifies a single vital element that can help close the talent, skills and gender gap in the workplace—increasing the digital fluency, or digital savvy of women. It also reveals an enormous incentive for South Africa to act now.

When digital fluency is combined with two other levers, career strategy (the need for women to aim high, make informed choices and manage their careers proactively) and tech immersion (the opportunity for women to acquire greater technology and stronger digital skills to advance as quickly as men), the potential impact is profound. 

It could add nearly 100 million women to the global workforce, reduce the pay gap by 35 percent worldwide and add $3.9 trillion to women’s income by 2030. Working towards a more even distribution of woman across the industries in similar proportion to men would also significantly increase economic output and further boost GDP.

But, what can we achieve in South Africa in the next few years? 

A key insight of Accenture’s Digital Fluency Model is that if governments and businesses double the pace at which women become digitally fluent, gender equality in the workplace could be achieved by 2040 in developed countries and 2060 in developing countries.

With greater digital fluency, women could grow their skills, gain greater access to work, and begin to reduce the gender pay gap. By applying the three levers, and with support for women from business, government and academia in critical areas, South Africa could “get to equal” and close the gender pay gap in the workplace by 2041, 52 years earlier than earlier estimates. 

The Digital Fluency Model shows that nations with higher rates of digital fluency among women have higher rates of gender equality in the workplace. Differences in the digital fluency of men and women in each country, and the overall digital fluency score for each country, reflects the stage of the journey to digital fluency that each country is at. Each, of course, has unique challenges (e.g., cultural, developmental, economic). South Africa is ranked 21 out of 26 countries.

According to Accenture’s Getting to Equal research, women in South Africa lag behind men in terms of digital fluency, yet do feel there has been progress: 53 percent of women feel that their career is much better or more successful than that of their mother’s.

Men score higher in terms of digital fluency than women in most of the countries studied. The survey suggests that globally men use digital more frequently than women and that they are more proactive than women in learning new digital skills. 

In South Africa, the picture is somewhat different. Women use digital more frequently, making use of social media, online searches and online news in their personal time and also averaging higher daily Internet usage, with one in four spending seven to nine hours on the Internet a day.

However, men generally have slightly more, and easier, access to technology. The study also shows that South African men in general are more inclined to be first to acquire or use new technologies, while women and those in the work stream prefer to wait for others to try them out first and provide feedback before making a decision.

In addition, the research indicates that globally men lead in key areas. There are more undergraduate men majoring in science, technology, engineering and maths; aspiring to be in senior leadership positions; and being more proactive in learning and adopting new digital skills.

Digital fluency is helping today’s workers better manage their time and become more productive, enabling greater work flexibility—a benefit workers value and companies are providing. Although this is enjoyed by both men and women, women appear to derive greater value from it. 

The research indicates South African (working) women are more accessible via the Internet than men (73 percent of women vs 65 percent of men); network more on social media (58 percent of women vs 53 percent of men); leverage more e-learning/online training options (51 percent of women vs 47 percent of men); and more active on online job postings (50 percent of women vs 44 percent of men).

While digital fluency is having a positive impact on earnings for both men and women, the pay gap is closing very slowly between genders, depriving women, families and communities of income, skills and education and deepens social inequality. In South Africa, almost 39 percent of the pay gap is attributed to the lower participation of women in paid employment.

Globally, women do the lion’s share of unpaid work, including cooking, cleaning and family care. This contributes significantly to the hidden pay gap and, at the same time, inhibits women’s ability to close the gender pay gap. 

Digital fluency helps overcome this impasse, catapulting the chances of more women getting paid work. Its potential impact is life-changing: by increasing digital fluency, nearly 100 million women globally (1.7 million in South Africa) would be added to the paid workforce.

For faster transformation women must, however adopt a more proactive approach to career strategy and deeper tech immersion for greater digital fluency. Women on the fast-track take advantage of all three equalisers and can provide a road map for other women just entering the workforce. Fast-track women comprised a fifth of Accenture’s study sample globally. They typically reach manager level within five years and lead their peer group in terms of advancement in the workplace.

At the senior manager level, 41 percent studied STEM or computer science at some point during their undergraduate or working years, and they continue to hone those skills.

In addition, Career Strategy is key for them, and they manage jobs and salaries adeptly, ensuring they have mentors, advocates and other support necessary to advance to senior positions.

Fast-track women also understand the connection between full-time work and increased pay, and they overwhelmingly work full-time. Of those surveyed, 94 percent are full-time workers and 74 percent benefit from flexible schedules.

The message to young women, educators, governments and employers is clear: digital fluency is vital, Internet access is fundamental, and helping women make smart choices to obtain paid work is essential to close the gender pay gap. 

When women enter the workforce, economies grow. Taking action now to close the gender gap within the workforce could add substantially to annual economic growth rates in South Africa over the coming decade.

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