Patricia De Lille: We need to stigmatise sexism

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Patricia De Lille
Patricia De Lille

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Imagine you own a factory that employs 100 people, all of whom do the same work. When you hire staff, you measure their ears because those with big ears earn more than those with small ones.

It’s beyond unconstitutional; it’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Now, imagine that, instead of ear size, you use skin colour to determine salary level – you’d have a riot on your hands. So why is it permissible to pay women less than men?

As another Women’s Month draws to a close, we lament the slow progress we are making in the fight for gender equality. We lament the plague of gender-based violence, and the fact that so many women and girls are unsafe at home, unsafe getting to school, unsafe going to buy a loaf of bread, unsafe at work and unsafe getting home again…

We lament the disproportionate sacrifices women make raising children, keeping the home fires burning, caring for the young and old – the so-called unpaid work that keeps our poorest women trapped, without support, in a cycle of poverty.

Protecting the victims of abuse takes us no closer to achieving equality – in fact, it underlines the state of inequality.

And we lament the systemic inequality that continues to permeate so many aspects of our lives, including the fact that girls born today are disadvantaged.

It is systemic inequality (or prejudice, to use another term) that says it’s okay for a white policeman to choke a black man to death on a street in the US; it’s okay for some countries to spew dirt into the environment at the cost of others; it’s okay for the media to portray women as the objects of men’s desire; it’s okay for some communities to live in gang-ridden ghettoes; it’s okay that the top structures of most companies are dominated by white men; and it’s okay to pay women less than men.

As girls grow up, the disadvantages they face manifest in many different ways because these disadvantages are part of the structure of society.

Take our wine industry as an example – it consistently employs more men than women, and women are more likely to be seasonal workers. In an economic crunch, or during a pandemic, guess who suffers first?

Read: Erase concepts that violate women

It says something very disturbing about the soul of the nation that, during the Covid-19-enforced lockdown, one of our key priorities was the urgent identification and release of state-owned properties to provide shelters for women and children who needed a safe space.

Protecting the victims of abuse takes us no closer to achieving equality – in fact, it underlines the state of inequality.

South Africans are rightfully proud of their Constitution and Bill of Rights, but until we are able to convert the theoretical rights these documents describe into practical action, they remain a holy grail: promises not attained.

Ending discrimination begins with educating our children and peers. It is an endeavour for the whole of society, beginning with the earliest lessons our children pick up at home by watching their parents. Gender education should be embedded in our education systems from day one at school.

It’s that fundamental. It should also be embedded in discussions around dinner tables and braai stands, in our clubs, societies, churches and community organisations.

We tend to use the word ‘stigmatise’ in a negative way, such as we shouldn’t stigmatise those who test positive for HIV or Covid-19. What we need to do is stigmatise sexism – make it uncool – and the only way we can do that is by addressing the centuries-old systems that created the imbalance.

Women are regarded as second-class citizens across much of the world. They constitute the poorest of the poor, are more likely to live in poverty than men, and their poverty is likely to be more severe than that of men. Studies show that the poverty in a woman-headed household is most likely to be intergenerational, trapping families in lifetime after lifetime of poverty.

In the patriarchal apartheid era, and in many other conservative societies, the idea that men must be in control became ingrained in many people’s minds.

The gender gap is a worldwide problem, but the nature of the inequality varies and the rate of closure of the gap is vastly different from region to region. At the current pace, according to the World Economic Forum, gender gaps in western Europe could be closed in 54 years, but it will take 95 years in sub-Saharan Africa, 107 years in eastern Europe, 140 years in the Middle East and north Africa, and 151 years in North America.

South Africa was once a standout country in Africa. In 2009, we were ranked sixth in the world for gender equity in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap assessment.

Just 31% of women are in the labour force, compared with an international average of 55%, but two out of every five households in South Africa are headed by women.

This year, we’re ranked 17th out of 149 countries measured – still ahead of countries such as Switzerland, Canada and the UK. Our achievements in greater gender equality in education and political representation are commendable, but in the economic participation and opportunity category, we are ranked 92nd out of 149 countries.

Drilling down, PwC reported the results of a survey of South African company executives in 2018.

Women held just 20% of senior management and executive positions across the 550 organisations surveyed. In 2008, Norway forced listed companies to reserve at least 40% of their director seats for women or face dissolution.

Since then, many western European countries – Germany, Spain and the Netherlands included – set similar quotas, with France, Belgium and Italy ensuring that companies that failed to meet their 30% to 40% representation quota would be fined, dissolved or banned from paying existing directors.

Read: Make it a criminal offence for companies to pay women less than men, says advocacy group

These are some ways in which opportunities for women are being unlocked at the highest levels, but we need to look across the spectrum of incomes.

Just 31% of women are in the labour force, compared with an international average of 55%, but two out of every five households in South Africa are headed by women.

Good, the political party, supports equal pay for equal work.

Research by Professor Anita Bosch at the University of Stellenbosch shows that the gender pay gap remains stuck at 23% to 35%, meaning women earn that much less than men for similar work.

A survey of almost 1 million people confirmed that pay inequalities are generally worst among the lowest-paid workers, but that even at mid-level, women who are managers earn 21% less than their male counterparts.

The UN aims to achieve “equal pay for work of equal value” by 2030. It’s a lofty goal; no country has yet achieved gender parity in wages. But if we don’t set targets, how will we ever reach them?

Improving economic opportunities for women includes equitable pay, improving inheritance rights for daughters, helping women and young girls break the intergenerational poverty cycle, and increasing the access to, control of and ownership of land by women.

It starts at home, with what we teach our boys.

De Lille is the leader of Good


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