by Marianne Gradwell

The history of Women’s Day

For many, it is simply another public holiday to enjoy at leisure (and for which we are truly grateful), but this day finds itself on our public holiday calendar as a tribute to the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the restriction that the hated official passes (“dompas”) placed on their freedom of movement. 

Having collected more than 100 000 signatures from women throughout the country, this historic march was a turning point for South African women as they subsequently became equal partners in the struggle for a non-racial and non-sexist South Africa.


The struggle continues

As recently as the 1980’s, for many women the excitement of falling pregnant also came with the knowledge that they would have to resign from their employment and attempt to re-enter a male-dominated job market after the event. In most instances, this involved starting from the bottom of the corporate ladder again.

Fortunately, our Constitution and new labour legislation have resulted in significant progress in the empowerment of women in the workplace but recent stats have shown that there is still a long road ahead.

The 17th Annual Report of the Commission for Employment Equity shows that males still dominate top management and senior management levels in both the public and private sectors. 

While the World Economic Forum in their Global Gender Gap Report 2016 ranked South Africa in the 15th position out of the 142 countries evaluated on progress made in closing the comparative gaps between men and women across the areas of health, education, economy and politics, our country ranked only 83rd in terms of wage inequality!


How are women experiencing the workplace today? 

McKinsey in their Women Matter Africa report acknowledges that Africa has taken big strides forward in female representation in the workplace, but that is still far from achieving gender equality. 

Top women leaders were interviewed across South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Gabon, Senegal and Morocca and factors of success mentioned by them included having to have a robust work ethic and having to go above and beyond what is expected of them. These women generally felt that, in response to gender bias, they had to work twice as hard as their male peers from early on in their careers to enable them to achieve. Other attributes required included resilience, courage, commitment and the willingness to take risks.  Most importantly, they recognised the need to build a close support system of mentors, sponsors and peer networks and to actively encourage other women and juniors to do the same.

Doesn’t this remind you of the qualities displayed by the 20 000 women who marched to the Union Buildings? 

While HR practitioners and organisations are often aware of the challenges faced by women as employees, very little has been done to provide women with a supportive and accommodating work environment. 

The annual SABPP Women’s Report this year focused on Fairness in relation to women at work. Their theme for this year was decided by Professor Anita Bosch after a student of hers reported that some men in her research thought that maternity leave was unfair. Many men and employers hold this same view. What we need to acknowledge though is that because the physiology of men and women are so different it is sometimes necessary to treat genders differently to achieve equality.

This report provides a glimpse of the world of work through the eyes of women and provides HR practitioners and line managers with some valuable insights to observe and consider for their own workplaces.   


But why do companies need women in the workplace?

 has shown that gender-diverse business units outperform those that are less diverse. 

Possible reasons are that men and women have different opinions, experiences and insights which enables business units to become better at problem solving and performance. Gender diversity not only widens the knowledge basis and access to resources and sources of information, but also allows an organisation to better serve an increasingly gender-diverse client and customer base. 

Wouldn’t you like to see higher returns on equity, sales and invested capital?