Despite the great strides that have been made to create gender equality in the workplace, imbalances in many industries still persist, particularly in developing nations. However, the ongoing advances in technology provide what is probably the most powerful tool in history to address these imbalances and provide women with opportunities to close the labour inequality gap.
It’s the 21st Century, and women still have less access to education than men
A recent World Bank survey in 34 African countries confirmed that women are lagging behind men in terms of access to education, with only 40% of those attaining a post-school qualification being female.
In the past, the inability to acquire a tertiary qualification would mean a bleaker employment outlook for the rest of one’s life, but technology provides the means to close the gap at any life stage.
Technology is a gender equality enabler
Technology provides opportunities to change gender work imbalances in a number of ways. The first is the lowering of barriers to entry. Surveys show that the gender gap in terms of education on the continent has been shrinking very slowly over the last few years, but this can be changed through access to the Internet.
As the Internet becomes increasingly available with the proliferation of smart devices, people are able to upskill themselves, regardless of previous qualifications.
This is important in the world of tech, where job requirements change so quickly that hardly any of the world’s top practitioners are using their qualifications to perform their work.
Tech industry does not suffer from inherent structural inequality
Being a modern industry, the tech world also does not suffer from the structural inequality we see in some other fields. In many other industries, one sometimes sees protectionism of particularly older men’s positions, but tech is a modern industry.
Its leaders should keep this in mind at all times and be dedicated to a balanced workplace. In the developed world, a larger proportion of the top networking engineers across the globe are women. This trend is starting to take hold in a number of African countries as well.
Addressing cultural factors perpetuating gender inequality
When I attended an IPv6 training session in Tunisia, which is aimed at fairly advanced engineers, 95% of those who attended were females. However, I have been to a number of similar conferences in South Africa, and women are hardly ever represented. One therefore may also need to address cultural concerns that might keep women out of the industry.
Currently, when we advertise a job opening, the vast majority of applicants are male, so it is not necessarily the employers who are making that choice. I believe most employers would be happy to employ a more diversified workforce.
In order to change the status quo, one would have to look at all the reasons why women are not qualifying themselves as tech engineers in the numbers we would like to see. These could include cultural, political, financial, perception, and many other factors.
A change is needed, and is coming
To address these issues, we believe that a good place to start is for the brilliant women in the industry to become increasingly heard, in order to create role models. I started out in the industry through role models and looking up to people for guidance. As a child, I could relate to older men in the industry, and the same can be true for young women. We are already seeing some work being done in this regard, but more can be done.
Lately, I have seen a massive drive on the coding front, and there are a lot more women entering the coding space, but there is some scope for development on the network and engineering side. In South Africa, I would presume that less than 1% of engineers in senior positions are women. The rest are all men, which is pathetic.
Role models that the youth identify with let them know that there is a path for them in that field. They would ask themselves whether they would feel comfortable doing a particular job, or out of place. The problem needs to be looked at holistically, as it stems from the very beginning. The pipeline is not so much broken as it is non-existent.
It stands to reason that those women who overcame gender equality in order to become successful advanced engineers would not allow the same inequalities to exist in their family should they choose to have one.
Collaborating To Create #balanceforbetter
Communicating this business case, setting goals and reporting on progress are key to driving change. The door to diversity will not open itself.
Each year on 8 March, International Women’s Day, I get invited to attend events that celebrate and discuss gender diversity in the workplace. They’re often rich with intelligent discussions about women and work, a topic I am immensely passionate about.
But all too often, I sit up on stage, look out to the crowd and I think, ‘where on earth are all the men?’ There are many supportive men on gender diversity (I know quite a few) but there is still work to be done as I often find myself singing to a choir of women who already know that gender diversity is a business priority.
It’s irrefutable that having a gender balance leads to better business outcomes, greater profitability and value creation. Better balance between women and men means broader insight, more empathy, and fresh ideas.
Gender diversity is not only a women’s issue. It’s a human issue. And the majority of our business leaders today, in particular in technology, are men. The only way we are truly going to make headway is to have the men standing with us to create a business environment where women can thrive.
I believe collaboration is vital to have as part of any gender diversity discussion and would even go so far as to say it’s negligent if this isn’t on a male or female business leaders’ agenda.
However, I think it’s easy to point fingers and we all need to look at how we can create more inclusive environments. It’s critical we have discussions in an open forum, and that organisers of events and support groups create positive opportunities for discussion that encourage men and women to attend and work together.
It worries me that the 2018 McKinsey and Company report on Women in the Workplace shows that progress hasn’t just slowed, it’s stalled. All the while, companies are reporting that they are highly committed to gender diversity. It’s a frustrating paradox. We didn’t open the door to diversity, only to turn around and shut it behind us.
Recently, I was introduced to the term moral-licensing through Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History. I can’t help but think that the phenomenon might be at play here. It describes the subconscious decisions we make to engage in prejudice behaviour, because in the past we did something virtuous.
Moral-licensing became a popular theory in 2009, describing those who voted in US President Barack Obama, and subsequently reverted to racist behaviours.
When I think about it in this context, I think about the companies who have hit a quota of females and assume the job is done. But token acts of egalitarianism do not mean you have an egalitarian workplace. It’s box-ticking and it’s bad for business.
I encourage every business leader to introduce a diversity plan and to really think about fostering an inclusive and respectful environment for diversity to thrive. Here’s where I think is a good place to start:
Women need to feel supported in the workplace, they need allies to feel confident enough that they can share their beliefs, their values and their views. Our leaders need to reengineer working environments to make them a safe, supportive place.
We need to be aware of our unconscious biases and flagging behaviour in the workplace that isn’t inclusive. It’s little things like calling grown women ‘girls’. They’re small but reinforcing behaviours and when added up, they have impact.
Support groups and events around International Women’s Day are great, but how can we make sure we have a diverse spread in the room and it’s an inclusive and encouraging environment for everyone.
I do believe the majority of businesses have the very best of intentions in this space, but leaders need to turn those intentions into actionable plans. So this International Women’s Day, I challenge you to speak out publicly about your business’s progress and goals for diversity. How is your organisation tracking and what is your vision and plan for the future? What you’re doing to ensure you’re not giving in to moral-licensing?
Communicating this business case, setting goals and reporting on progress are key to driving change. The door to diversity will not open itself.
Funding And Financial Assistance For SA Women Entrepreneurs
Female entrepreneurs are growing in numbers, but without access to appropriate funding many start-ups will find it difficult to grow their businesses, regardless of whether there’s a man or woman at the helm. Fortunately, access to funds for female entrepreneurs is improving thanks to government and private enterprises.
In fact, The Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) noted that 72% of micro-enterprises and 40% of small enterprises are currently owned by women. Government and private enterprises have put programmes and funds in place aimed at empowering the women of South Africa.
Starting a business is always a challenging objective, what makes it more challenging is trying to find funding to get your innovative idea of the ground.
Content in this guide
- The Isivande Women’s Fund (IWF)
- Women Entrepreneurial Fund (WEF)
- Business Partners Women in Business Fund
- IDF Managers Funding
- Enablis Acceleration Fund
- The National Empowerment Fund (NEF)
- Absa Women Empowerment Fund
- The Special Projects and Programmes Unit (SPP)
- Women in Oil and Energy South Africa (WOESA)
Funds and Financial Assistance
Here are seven funds and financial assistance programmes as well as two resources for women entrepreneurs in South Africa.
Too Few South African Women Become Entrepreneurs, But This Can Change
Organisations built by business women and that speak loudly and assertively for business women will send an unambiguous message that women belong in the community of entrepreneurs.
Although South Africa’s constitutional democracy has been advocating for gender equality for the past 24 years, the level of entrepreneurship among South African men and women is still far less equal than the country’s economic peers such as Ghana and Uganda. This is an indication that a progressive constitution alone is not enough to ensure that women join the local community of entrepreneurs in equal numbers to men.
Illustrating this, are the latest figures from the 2017/2018 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) which show that 13 out of every 100 South African men are involved in total early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to just 9 out of every 100 women.
This research shows that the inequality goes deeper than just the headline figure. A higher percentage of women who do start their own ventures do so out of necessity (34.3 percent for women vs. 18 percent for men), whereas South African men, on the other hand, are more likely to start a business in response to an opportunity (82 percent for men vs. 65.7 percent for women). As research indicates that opportunity-driven entrepreneurs are more likely to create wealth than necessity-driven entrepreneurs, this is definitely an area for improvement for our country.
The GEM study is an annual survey, and dishearteningly, a look at the GEM figures over a number of years shows no discernible trend towards closing the gap, while some of South Africa’s economic peers such as Brazil and Vietnam consistently show an equal number of men and women starting businesses.
Gender parity in entrepreneurship needs a consistent stretch of truly high economic growth, north of 6 percent, to shake lose any remaining cultural, psychological and economic chains that are keeping women back. Unlike its counterparts, South Africa’s economic growth over the past few decades has seldom breached 4 percent – hovering around 3 percent since 1994.
This might also explain the general low levels of entrepreneurship in the South African population, among both men and women, compared to its economic peers – 11 percent of the South African population is involved in entrepreneurial activity. Wealth creating businesses start in response to opportunities, which multiply when economic growth is strong.
Short of a massive economic stimulus needed to propel South Africa’s economic growth upward, is there anything that can be done on an incremental level in order to establish entrepreneurial equality between men and women in South Africa?
I believe that there are many low-key ways in which to entice more women to become entrepreneurs. One place to start, is to focus on the income-generating side-lines that many South African women are engaged in. A scan of social media shows that South African women are not short of ideas nor initiative. From activities that are traditionally seen as female-oriented such as baking and sewing, to truly innovative social clubs and online initiatives seem to provide an outlet for many women’s entrepreneurial urges. Yet too few of them develop into proper full-time careers.
Programmes focused on women and their side-hustles might find fertile ground to grow them into fully fledged businesses.
Another factor that might entice more women to start businesses is more accessible finance. There is no easy solution, however, as research shows that men are more likely to start looking for finance early when they launch their ventures. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to use their own funds to start a business and thus delay seeking finance until their venture is potentially in trouble making it more difficult to secure finance.
The solution, if any, lies in education and training deep enough to effect a significant shift in mind-set. Given the poor state of the educational system, South Africa still has a way to go, but it could be argued that any incremental improvement in the education system would boost the country’s levels of entrepreneurship.
It remains to be seen if an increase in gender equality and representation among bankers and financiers may lead to improved access to finance for female entrepreneurs, but because it is a good thing in itself, gender parity in the finance industry is worth pursuing.
The celebration of female entrepreneurship in popular culture, social media and as part of cultural events remains important and probably cannot be overdone. Awareness of the possibility of success in the business world for females remains fundamental to any young woman’s decision to choose entrepreneurship.
Finally, a strengthening of the profile of women’s business associations in South Africa can become an important factor in increasing the number of female entrepreneurs. Organisations built by business women and that speak loudly and assertively for business women will send an unambiguous message that women belong in the community of entrepreneurs.