Stuck Behind a Man’s Desk

Gender Inequality in the Workforce

Inequality has always been a struggle for South Africa. It has remained an undeniable fact known around the globe. Before coming to South Africa, like most people, I associated this struggle with only that of racial inequality. This assumption overlooks the other injustice that South Africa faces today, which is the inequality of women. This narrow perception of South Africa’s struggle with discrimination was quickly revised when I saw firsthand how women are objectified as below that of men. Still battling with traditional beliefs that women are property rather than human beings, South Africa faces a clash of traditional and modern values. While past culture emphasizes that the woman’s place remains in the kitchen, contemporary views encourage women to pursue a quality education and career. This dichotomy of views remains a significant issue as the nation continues to grow its economy. If women are discouraged from taking charge in the workforce, how is South Africa going to attain a strong economy and can the nation continue to be considered a true democracy?

The Origin of Gender Inequality

South Africa’s traditional values originate from the country’s indigenous people. As a class we were able to experience the culture of various African tribes and witness how they separated the man and the woman when we went to Lesedi. First, they physically separate by gender; the woman is to remain in the kitchen while the men meet in areas only reserved for men, as they meet to discuss important tribal events. Second, they objectify women as property, measuring their value through number of cattle. In order to marry a woman, the man must have a certain number of cattle to trade for his ‘beloved’ wife. We witnessed this practice outside of Lesedi’s premise, when one of our students was told “I will give all of my father’s cattle for you.” This remark reflects how traditional South African beliefs are still prevalent, even in urban cities.

Underrepresentation of SA Businesswomen

Even though today trading cattle for women is no longer a common South African practice, it is common for men to push traditional roles on women. This includes women being seen as sexual objects and homemakers, rather than serious businesswomen and leaders. Women are forced to work harder than men in order to attain the same job. Although women make up 54% of the population, in 2009 women only represented 41% of the workplace. Female representation in the workplace has come a long way from the time of apartheid; however, women are still dealing with the glass ceiling effect when examining influential positions in the world of business. According to the same study in 2009, “only 7% of South African directors are female, 3% of chairs of boards are female, and 2% of CEOs are female” (Lewis-Enright, Crafford, and Crous). Furthermore, according to Grant Thornton, “only 28% of South African senior management positions are filled by women” and in 2013 they found that 21% of South African businesses had no representation of women in any of their senior management positions (“Not enough women”). Not only does this underrepresentation contradict South Africa’s Constitution, but also it limits the country from growing economically. It has been proven that businesses financially outperform their competitors when there is a higher representation of women in the company’s senior management positions (“Women lagging in the workplace”).

Irony of Government Involvement

So if South Africa’s future economy lies in the hands of women, has the government done anything to improve their discrimination? Ironically, President Zuma has committed to improving gender equality through his proposed Gender Equity Bill. This bill commits to maintain a 50/50 gender representation across private, public, and government sectors, seeking to increase women in decision-making positions. In a speech promoting the bill, Zuma announced that “the fundamental principal … is that women’s rights are human rights” (“Women’s rights are human rights: Zuma”). I found this statement from South Africa’s president highly ironic given that he was given his esteemed position with only a 5th grade education, something a woman could never achieve with such a background. Furthermore, I am curious how he could have such modern and democratic beliefs when he continues to practice the traditional act of polygamy, with nine wives.

Beyond South Africa’s Borders

Unfortunately, this continued dichotomy of traditional and modern beliefs regarding women is also present across the globe, including the United States. Although women in the United States are not as discriminated against compared to South Africa, they are far from equal compared to men. Similar to South Africa, women are underrepresented in top levels of management. Even though women in the United States consist of 50.8% of the population, only 4.6% of the Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. Additionally, women hold only 16.9% of board directors in the Fortune 500 (Warner). These statistics illustrate how gender inequality is not just one country’s issue; it is a worldwide battle that extends beyond South Africa’s borders.

Looking Forward

As a senior accounting major, I will be entering the workforce this upcoming August after graduation. Growing up as a middle class U.S. citizen, I was aware of limitations for women but I had not seen the extent of gender inequality until I came to South Africa. South African women fight everyday for their equality and personally, I have never witnessed stronger women. Throughout the trip, we have met independent women who have fought the odds and have become successful businesswoman. From a refugee worker, to a school principal, to an owner of a restaurant in Langa, these women have been inspiring role models for the entire class. It is our duty as women and businesswomen to break down barriers brought on by the past. If statistics show that the presence of women can change a country’s economy, then what’s stopping us from changing the world’s standards?


“I learnt the lesson of non-violence from my wife when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her, and in the end she became my greatest teacher in non-violence.”

– Mahatma Gandhi


 Lewis-Enright, Karen, Anne Crafford and Freddie Crous. “Towards a workplace conductive to the career advancement of women.” SA Journal of Industrial Psychology (2009). Web. 21 Jan. 2015.

“Not enough women in senior management positions in South Africa.” Grant Thornton. 8 March 2013. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

Warner, Judith. “Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap.” American Progress. 7 March 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

“Women lagging in the workplace.” HR Future. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.

“Women’s rights are human rights: Zuma.” SABC News. 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2015.

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