Root out inequality where it stands!

2011-11-26 14:00

A number of policies and empowerment strategies have been developed in recent years in an effort to correct past imbalances and accelerate the empowerment of previously disadvantaged groups in South Africa, particularly blacks and women.

Why, then, is it still difficult for women to break the glass ceiling in business and corporate environments?

When South Africa has shown leadership in participation of women in public sector decision-making (Parliament and Cabinet), why is economic participation moving at such a slow pace, and why is socioeconomic inequality between women and men persisting?

In the spirit of promoting a shared understanding of these challenges and commitment to finding new solutions, the International Women’s Forum of South Africa (IWFSA) has created platforms of dialogue to engage women and corporate leaders from various sectors to share their views on challenges, opportunities and successes that can inform new and refined approaches.

These included round-table discussions on women and economic empowerment, which are intended to serve as a foundation for the IWFSA to develop a national Women Empowerment Index.

To develop such an index, IWFSA commissioned research on the status of economic empowerment of women in South Africa, commencing with an analysis of the challenges. These form the basis of discussion in the dialogues.

The Businesswomen Association’s yearly census has helped in raising awareness on the status of women at management and board levels.

The yearly Employment Equity Report also helps in tracking progress (or lack thereof). We require an index that builds on these, and that focuses on tracking labour market participation and active economic activity roles.

All indications confirmed by the South African National Planning Commission’s diagnostic report in June this year indicate that after 17 years of democracy and a Constitution that promotes equality for all persons, there is still widespread poverty and inequality in the country.

Increased focus by government in tackling these issues by upping economic growth and household incomes through greater employment-creation programmes have been put forward.

Most recently there is the New Growth Path, which targets creating five million new jobs; the industrial policy action plan two; and preferential procurement.

The increasing number of social grants (about 15?million) has also contributed to reducing poverty. But the problem of poverty and inequality persist.

IWFSA’s economic empowerment drive commences with engendering economic policies as gender-blind policies because interventions are short-changing women by excluding or taking for granted their contributions to society and the economy.

Members of the IWFSA are now sharing these views with the public as sector-specific strategies are being developed based on analyses of the status quo, and developing measures and targets which will form part of the empowerment index. Discussions with industry sectors, business formations and professional bodies form part of the strategy.

The index will serve as a guide, providing detailed information on the roles being played by women.

It will look at the various policies and sector charters, identifying what measures and targets have been set for the economic empowerment of women in sectors such as IT, property, health, finance, textile, manufacturing and transport.

There hasn’t been a significant penetration of women in these sectors, even after the implementation of BEE and empowerment strategies. Importantly, the focus is not only on those employed, but also entrepreneurs (deal-making led by women).

IWFSA seeks to change the environment and create opportunities for women without implying that one gender is inferior or superior to the other. Instead, empowerment should be more about harnessing the strengths of both men and women.

Women-owned entities are making inroads into large deals and acquisitions, and transforming the face of corporate South Africa.

Most of the time, however, the level of acquisition is modest, with women often being participants rather than leaders in a transactions. Women-owned companies are forced to piggyback on male-dominated companies.

Access to finance is still a major issue, as banks and financial institutions generally lack focused funding that accommodates women.

Banks still use the one-size-fits-all type of methodology instead of bespoke or unique financial instruments, which focus directly on women-focused initiatives and entrepreneurship.

The research will thus focus on funding mechanisms (incorporating both development finance institutions and commercial institutions).

IWFSA recognises that it will take changes in mindsets to break the glass ceiling and has thus prioritised mentorship as one of the key drivers that will speed empowerment.

Incubating the next generation through sharing and imparting of knowledge will help advance more women to be successful.

IWFSA seeks to contribute to changing the environment and creating opportunities for women empowerment.

The approach is about creating wealth for one another and enriching families and the nation.

Most importantly, women should continue to do business with dignity and on a moral high ground, in order to protect their reputation and integrity, with an emphasis on sharing experiences.

Women business leaders should take on the responsibility of providing opportunities to younger and less experienced women through making each other visible and being united.

Joining forces with different formations is important to ensure that women form part of business deals from the outset, rather than waiting for an invitation to partake in major deals or policy debates.

The Women Empowerment Index is to ensure that women are central to the new developmental path of South Africa.

» Mahlati is the president of IWFSA, a progressive organisation of women leaders whose vision is to educate, empower, nurture and mentor the next generation of women leaders in South Africa through various programmes. She is also a member of the National Planning Commission

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