Gender disparity in business remains all-pervasive

Business Day Live

Our View: Economic Emancipation in South Africa is not a term we should limit to a discussion of race. In fact, in order to achieve true economic emancipation, we must, by definition, include all citizens within that term. In fact, black people were not the only victims of Apartheid in South Africa. For example, women are notably under-represented in society, particularly in business. To achieve the economic liberation of women, it is not only the responsibility of the government to encourage entrepreneurship and implement measures to redress gender disparities, but it is the role of our society to recognise that in the 21st century economic emancipation of a population can only be achieved when all members of society are treated the same, regardless of their race and gender, and thus given equal opportunities.

THE under-representation of women at the top, including in the boardroom, is a version of perennial injustice. Further, many women face the gender pay gap and other forms of sexism in the workplace, while a high number of those who pursue entrepreneurship battle with male-dominated social norms.

In short, despite repeated studies showing that inclusion of women in economic activities uplifts nations and buoys their GDP, or that sexism is unjust, gender disparity in this field remains all-pervasive. Proof of this is piling up, thanks to the many pieces of research that reflect gender-based inequalities in the economy, among other societal activities.

Many governments, including ours in SA, recognise that sexism cannot self-correct. It’s to that end that governments are implementing or searching for measures to redress gender disparities that trace their genesis to socialisation with a patriarchal bias. Establishment of the Small Business Development Department has put emphasis on entrepreneurship as a growth engine, but is yet to make the market conducive for the fairer gender.

There is little acknowledgement that women who are employed or running their own businesses face a different set of difficulties. Women are also those most responsible for domestic duties, whereas men (entrepreneurs or otherwise), don’t always prioritise their home chores. It is also not uncommon for banks and funding institutions to infantilise women, and it has now become known that some men in power demand sexual favours in exchange for business. On the other hand, the community can serve as an invisible “leveller” that puts advancing women “in their place”.

Despite such biases or structural constraints, ordinary women are today embarking on entrepreneurship towards economic emancipation. But as things stand, a whopping 70% of their enterprises are necessity or survival based rather than innovative. Even so, the number of women entrepreneurs falls as you go up the food chain, which in turn keeps female role-models in short supply. That explains why business bigwigs are almost invariably male. This skewed demographic enforces a misconception, notably among girls, that “business is for men”. Sadly, some women whose entities do well feel incomplete without putting men in the driver’s seat, as confirmed by a recent study conducted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) Enterprise Development Academy (EDA).

It is bad enough that there are way too few female role-models and that the pay gap keeps them at the bottom. Globally, women earn 50% less than men for the same job. Even developed nations report pay disparities, with that in the UK pegged at 20%. The picture varies from one country to the next, but it is clear that the globe continues to short change women in the 21st century. Because less pay means less collateral, the situation perpetuates itself in the context of wealth creation and entrepreneurship.

“Women perform 66% of the world’s work, and produce 50% of the food, yet earn only 10% of the income and own 1% of the property,” former US President Bill Clinton once said.

While economists and researchers agree that entrepreneurship helps unlock economies or boost GDPs, micro levels barely receive attention. At a personal or individual level, financial freedom can erode women’s dependency on men to earn a living. Not only does generating their own money give them, like males, a voice or a sense of self-worth, it also uplifts nations since social progress rests on women’s economic independence.

The ability to earn is also significant since some women remain in unhealthy relationships, sometimes violent ones, because they are at the mercy of their partners for economic survival. Without an income, economically disenfranchised women may lose their voice, lack confidence, and become prone to violence and abuse.

However, for entrepreneurial economic emancipation to deliver the goods, female entrepreneurs deserve an enabling environment where they have access to markets and other related opportunities. After all, what is empowerment without economic access? The inability to earn one’s own money is why some women, rescued from social ills such as domestic violence or prostitution, are left with fewer choices rather than ending up retracing their steps to their immediate past.

Although entrepreneurship has picked up in SA, it is still lagging behind its African counterparts. Meanwhile, boys and girls need to be taught, as part of an ongoing and integrated approach, that entrepreneurship is central to progress and economic independence. Indeed, this country has a host of unique hardships including the legacy of race-based spatial development, a recipe for a quadruple burden for women in townships. Being a black entrepreneur is a double negative. Gender and location complicate matters.


Gauteng Premier David Makhura notes that townships were designed as dormitories of cheap black labour to service the white economy. Transformation, post-apartheid, has been slow. For example, infrastructure remains sub-par or inappropriate, and townships are neither marketed properly nor are they entrepreneurship-supportive. Misconceptions about safety persist.

Small business failure within two years of registration in South Africa is between 70% and 80% on average. Reasons behind this dismal performance include lack of access to finance or markets, lack of business skills and the burden of red tape. Added to challenges related to accessing new markets, a key point, some of the 40 female entrepreneurs polled by the EDA cited discouraging husbands and a disapproving society that pull them down.

All of these are huge hurdles in the way of women’s economic liberation through entrepreneurship. Coupled with these factors and including female entrepreneurs in the supply chain, we need to tackle red tape and bureaucracy urgently – the latter being key to what Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu concedes is a disabling environment. We also need to step up on role-modelling and collaborate to fight sexist attitudes.

For their part, big business leaders can start by embracing a gendered approach and facilitate the transfer of skills and simultaneously allocate quotas of their procurement budgets to women-owned enterprises. Women’s economic empowerment.

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