The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – July 2021

Gender inequality at work

By Prof Anita Bosch

  • JAN 2021
13 minutes to read


Gender wars in the workplace: Is gender equality the answer?

Gender equality – what it means, whether it is practised in the workplace and how it can be improved – has been the subject of serious and often fiery debate for decades. The term ‘gender’ extends beyond the notion of male or female in a biological sense; it can also describe someone’s chosen identity, which may be male, female or something in between. However, in the context of gender equality (or inequality, as the case may be) in the workplace, which is the focus of a chapter, ‘Gender inequality at work’, in the book titled 12 Lenses into Diversity in South Africa, gender refers, biologically speaking, to a man or a woman.

Gender inequality in the workplace broadly means that male or female employees do not enjoy the same opportunities, working conditions and/or pay as their counterparts of the opposite sex – although women are typically on the receiving end of gender-based discrimination. Therefore, overhauling policies and structures (not only within organisations but also at the national policy level) to ensure that women receive the same recognition and rewards as men, for the same work, seems like a sensible and long-overdue strategy.

However, full equality for women may not be the best prescription – especially in those professions where men’s comparative physical strength (mining or construction work, for example) would give them a performance-related advantage over women or in those organisations that do not look kindly at women interrupting their careers to have children or care for family members. At times, equality between men and women in the sense of being treated ‘the same’ at work leads, paradoxically, to their being viewed and treated quite differently. The concept of gender equity is sometimes advanced as an alternative or a companion to gender equality. Equity is concerned with giving employees what they need so that the equality gap at work is reduced. For example, this may involve giving women more support in the area of personal development if social or industry norms have deprived them of the opportunity to get ahead professionally or taking steps to close the arbitrary or unjustifiable wage gap between certain levels of male and female employees in an organisation.

At times, equality between men and women in the sense of being treated ‘the same’ at work leads, paradoxically, to their being viewed and treated quite differently.

The situation in South Africa

Gender inequality in the workplace is very pronounced in South Africa, exacerbated by the country’s torrid history of exclusion and separate development, its sharply divided socio-economic character and a pervasive male-dominated culture in various industries. Furthermore, South Africa has been witnessing an alarming rise in gender-based violence in recent years. These factors have all conspired to create a work environment that often discriminates against women.

There is a noticeable disparity between men and women in terms of access to formal employment opportunities, especially senior positions, while remuneration often differs – even when men and women perform the same type of work. Women mainly constitute elementary workers in the formal business sector and remain trapped in less-than-optimal semi-skilled and unskilled jobs. The fact that many women live far from their places of work and have long daily commutes – the result of South Africa’s convoluted geospatial character – is a factor contributing towards many women’s (and men’s) lack of access to jobs that match their skills sets.

Recent studies have shown some promising trends, however. For example, 8% more women are employed in the public sector than men, and women hold about 40% of professional positions in the private sector. Women occupy 33% of senior management positions in the private sector and 39% in the public sector. Yet women remain very under-represented in industries such as mining, agriculture, utilities, transport and construction. Moreover, many women work in the informal sector in South Africa, which is inherently precarious and provides few opportunities for advancement.


Are men and women suited to different types of work?

There is a common perception that women are particularly well suited to ‘feminine’ types of work, with caregiving and other, selfless acts for the common good being key features. Feminine industries include education, healthcare, and child/home/frail care. In contrast, ‘masculine’ industries display greater autonomy, rationality and self-focus. Masculine industries include engineering, mining and utilities. As feminine work (even within a masculine industry) is perceived to be altruistic in nature, it often attracts lower pay than masculine work, which is regarded as results-driven and essential for keeping the wheels of the economy turning.

Interestingly, recent statistics show that the number of women graduating from higher education institutions in South Africa in the fields of education, business/commerce, science, engineering, technology and the humanities exceeds that of men. This trend translates into rising numbers of women in the fields of accountancy, law and other professions. Clearly, a good education (particularly higher education) is an important vehicle for professional advancement among women in the country and opens doors to fields of work that do not necessarily have a strong caring or nurturing element.

There is a noticeable disparity between men and women in terms of access to formal employment opportunities, especially senior positions, while remuneration often differs – even when men and women perform the same type of work.

Possible explanations for gender-based pay differences

The gender-based pay gap in South Africa is sometimes attributed to the different types of work that men and women perform, such as manual labour versus care work. However, if physical strength is used as a criterion, the argument has no merit as women have long demonstrated that they are superior to men when it comes to physical endurance, evidenced in their ability to bear children and care for them (and other dependants) without respite, work the lands, look after livestock, make food, clean the home, and so on. Even when men and women do the same physical work (such as domestic work), men are often paid more than their female counterparts.

Pay scales also differ from one industry to the next. For example, feminine industries usually pay lower wages than masculine industries. The reasons for this are not clear, although the strong caregiving or altruistic component in feminine industries seems to diminish the perceived value of the work. Moreover, the fact that women are essentially assigned an unofficial caregiving role from an early age and will come to exercise it on a continual basis once they have children makes them (in some employers’ eyes) less committed because they will be distracted by their responsibilities at home. This makes women an easy target for being overlooked for promotion, even if their obvious commitment and performance do not differ from those of their male colleagues. While some organisations may be inclined to tar all female employees with the same brush, others may prioritise those without children for training and professional development.

Unless women can tap into excellent childcare arrangements, having and rearing children can be physically and emotionally demanding, which could adversely affect women’s stamina at work and their performance. This is often used by employers as justification for introducing different pay scales and reward systems for men and women, respectively. By overlooking the fact that female employees with children sometimes need special forms of support, employers – choosing to endorse the ‘treat-all-employees-the-same’ approach – can further entrench gender inequality in the workplace.

Culture also has an important bearing on how men and women are viewed at work and their perceived potential to assume responsibility and move into leadership roles. In Africa, customary law, for example, regards women as subservient to and dependent on their husbands, which precludes them from owning and controlling property, among other things. In addition, polygamy, while clearly undermining women’s rights, is widely practised on the continent. Some would claim that leadership is largely a male trait; yet history and experience have shown that women, given the right opportunities and skills, can be very effective leaders.

The strong caregiving or altruistic component in feminine industries seems to diminish the perceived value of the work.

Bringing equality to the workplace: men and women must unite

Gender equality in the workplace cannot exist without gender equality in the home and society as a whole. Men and women need to work together to level the playing field, removing the obstacles that prevent women from enjoying the fruits of their educational and work-related labours and highlighting the benefits of having women in management and in the boardroom.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, once quipped: ‘A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies, and men ran half our homes.’ This is indeed an interesting proposition and one guaranteed to topple popular stereotypes. In many cases, women themselves (often unwittingly) are complicit in promoting workplace mind-sets that favour men. Together, men and women should consider the merits of company policies that acknowledge gender differences rather than sameness and take the focus off numbers (number of hours at work, number of years of continuous service, and so on) when determining female employees’ contribution and worth.

  • Find the original article here: Bosch, A. (2021). Gender inequality at work. In P. Daya & K. April (Eds.) 12 Lenses into Diversity in South Africa (pp. 91–104). Randburg: Knowledge Resources.
  • Prof Anita Bosch holds the USB Research Chair dedicated to the study of women at work. She is also a research fellow at Vlerick Business School in Belgium.

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