Liz Ditshego ponders the advancement of women in the workplace: is it really happening, or are we fooling ourselves?


While I am always game for a public holiday and the chance to celebrate every achievement, I always pause to ask myself what I am popping champagne bottles over (or sparkling wine, given the current tough economy). Once again, the month of August is upon us and, as it is, I have been invited as a keynote speaker to various events across the country. Delivering speeches is one of the exciting things about my work.

As we celebrate women this month, we need to have a clear and conscious understanding of what exactly it is that we are celebrating. Let’s ponder on this. Are we celebrating the successful march that women of all races, colours and creeds embarked upon in 1956, to make their voices heard about the injustices they were suffering? Are we celebrating the fact that, ever since that march, women have advanced socially, economically and politically?


The 1956 march marks a very important event in the historical calendar of women. The courageous women who faced the government of that time paved the way to important conversations about women and their rights to freedom, recognition, advancement and general well-being. The significance of that march must never be understated and must be taught to every generation, even the children that are yet to be born. I, for one, would not be sitting in my comfortable home office typing this article on my MacBook, had the women of 1956 not fought for my basic rights as a member of a generation that was yet to come.

I do believe, however, that given where we are and where we have come from, we need to be celebrating beyond the astounding achievements of 1956. As women, we are now faced with a different struggle. The struggle that women faced in the 1950s, 1960 and early 1970s was that of the concrete wall, when overt and absolute barriers were used to block women from accessing opportunities. It was an era during which women were denied even the most basic human rights such as voting, as well as the right to get an education in a top university… or even, in many cases, the chance for basic education. Only a handful of women managed to enter the workplace.

In the late 1970s a new era dawned for women’s equality, and it was an era that marked a significant improvement from the days of the concrete wall. Women managed to enter the workplace in entry level positions and slowly progressed to middle-management. Although this was a breakthrough, it was not the end of the struggle for women.

From the late 1970s through to the 1990s, a new form of struggle for women emerged – the glass ceiling. This was the time when barriers had shifted to not affecting all women in the workplace, but only those in senior management. Those who rose steadily through the ranks eventually crashed into this invisible barrier.

Women in senior management with ambitions to get into top management could see the top positions that they wanted to be in, yet they found themselves inexplicably blocked by a transparent barrier. The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just could not break into it. One of the challenges that women faced in this era was to be overlooked for executive positions because of their reproductive capacity. It was feared that they would leave work to go on maternity leave and, perhaps, never return. Those who already had young children or disclosed their intentions to have them were penalised severely.

The glass ceiling can no longer be blamed as a barrier to the advancement of women, particularly into top management positions. Since the term was first coined (particularly at the turn of the century and through the 2000s), women have made great progress. They have, to a great extent, managed to navigate their way from middle-management into top management, occupying important executive and board-level positions.Carli Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett-Packard) said that, in the beginning of her tenure at HP in 1999, her appointment proved that ‘we are at a point where everyone has figured out that there is not a glass ceiling’.

In South Africa, too, many have managed to get into C-Suite and board positions. Many have been profiled and graced the covers of top business publications, including Leadership magazine. We have made great in-roads as women and we have taken the front seats in boardrooms and created role-models for the younger generation.

So, yes, we have a lot to celebrate… or do we? The number of women entering top management positions is growing annually, but the problem is that the pace of that growth is slower than that of a snail. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a pessimist. In fact, I am an optimist of note. However, when I look at the 2016 Employment Equity report - commissioned annually by the Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) - I honestly do not see what is there to celebrate.

According to the report, the percentage of women in top management positions in South Africa increased from 20,9% in 2015 to 21,4% in 2015, a rise of merely half a percent. The increase in the period 2013 to 2014 was also below a full percentage. The representation of women in this sector still remained approximately half below their EAP (Economically Active Population) at this level in 2015. This includes people from 15 to 64 years of age who are either employed or unemployed and seeking employment.

Men continue to be over-represented across both the public and private sector. White males remain dominant in most industry sectors. Even in sectors that are perceived to be more suitable for women (based on gender stereotyping), the top management is raining men. For instance, the catering, accommodation and other trade sector has a male representation of 71.3%. White females are also dominant in all sectors, with the exception of the electricity, gas and water supply sector, where African females feature prominently at 12%.

As if this is not enough of a slap on women’s faces, the gender pay gap remains wide. Across most parts of the world, the gender pay gap exists. In most countries the gap seem to be contracting, while in South Africa it seems to be expanding. The gender gap in our country (as measured by the level of aspects that include economic opportunity and participation, health, education and so forth) sits at 25%. However, the gender pay gap has been reported to sit at an alarming 35%.

This means that men take home the full value of a woman’s annual pay after just eight months! Effectively, women have to work an additional four months to earn the same annual salary as their male counterparts. It does not help that women (particularly younger ones), are faced with the double bind of starting families and growing their careers. South African labour law only allows for paid maternity leave of up to four months.

So, if a woman takes four months off to look after and bond with her baby, she will still be rewarded with 35% less income compared to her male colleague. Most companies are now thoughtful and kind enough to offer extended maternity leave to their female employees, although this extra leave remains unpaid.

I challenge policy makers, employers and, particularly, those in decision-making positions, to ponder anew the plight of women in the workplace, as we celebrate the 9th of August.

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