The Status of Women report shows that top business women face as many, albeit different, challenges as cleaners in South Africa.

(By Christelle du Toit)

The Status of Women in the South African Economy report, recently released by the Department of Women, situated in the Presidency, paints a bleak picture of the economic involvement of women in the economy, both at the top and bottom end of the scale.

While progress certainly has been made in the financial empowerment of South African women, and their general involvement in the economy, the fact remains that women still face systemic and societal challenges that put them at a significant disadvantage to their male counterpart. The report accedes: "we have to content with the unsettling reality of high unemployment, poverty and inequality that most women still experience."

Furthermore, this is true for women at the top end of the scale – well educated in good jobs – as well as those at the bottom – generally poorly educated, in low-paying jobs, and over-indebted or living in abject poverty.

TEH FIRST Discriminatory financial cycle

There are two basic cycles that women in South Africa can generally be categorised into. Certainly there are exceptions, but for the bulk of women in the economy, the reality is that they are inherently worse off than men economically.

At the bottom end of the economic cycle, there are women who are black, impoverished, poorly educated, stuck in a debt crisis, and unable to provide a better future for their girl children, perpetuating the negative cycle. The cycle they live in can be summarised as follows:


At the beginning of their schooling career, girls are accounting for an increasing share of enrollment. However, by the age of 15, attendance rates of girls at school drops significantly. While financial restraints are quoted by both boys and girls when they drop out of school, family commitments and pregnancy are major reasons for girls dropping out, states the report.

According to the findings, teenage pregnancy "does make it significantly more difficult for young mothers to further their education.

“Pregnancy and a lack of affordability combined are responsible for almost 55 percent of non-enrollment of females" before the age of 15, states the report.

The report notes Household Survey results that indicate women are more vulnerable to family commitments and may be sacrificing their education for others in a way that males are perhaps not required to do.”

But, not only are girls spending less time in school, they are also getting a poorer quality education than their male counterparts. The research reveals that, at secondary education levels, males account for more than half of the passes in mathematics and physical science, despite them being in the minority in the education system. In addition, they outperform their female counterparts in these key subjects.

Many girls and women are choosing not to enter fields like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and rather opting for the services, education, and welfare fields, graduating as nurses, teachers, and the like. This means that, 21 years into democracy, women still gravitate towards gender-defined fields.

Even at secondary and tertiary education levels, young women constitute the majority of enrolments. At this level though, women dominate the lower-level degrees while men dominate the higher-level degrees, speaking to the fact that they will automatically not have the same economic clout as men who, for example, graduate in specialised financial degrees.


The Department of Women's report points out: "The systemic exclusion of black South Africans from educational opportunities prior to 1994 has resulted in a large pool of unskilled labour that the country has proven unable to absorb.

“Within each race group, women have historically been negatively disadvantages in terms of access to education. As a result, black women have encountered barriers to education that has stemmed from national discriminatory policies, as well as societal norms and expectations. “

Following from less schooling, and a lower standard of schooling when it comes to key subjects, stems the entry of women into the labour market at generally lower-level and lower-paying jobs.

The job market in South Africa is performing poorly in general. The Women’s report states that the gradual upward trend in unemployment in South Africa illustrates “the economy’s current inability to create employment for the growing number of individuals who would like to work." It notes that women face labour challenges in general globally, and South Africa is no different.

“For women, unemployment growth is outpacing growth in the working population,” is notes, adding that both the narrow and expanded views of unemployment is almost double for women than that of men. However, women are hungrier for work - there are less discouraged job-seekers among women than men. Still, the reality is that “women are substantially less likely to be economically active than men.”

Despite relatively slow employment growth, black South Africans have fared relatively well in finding work, and employment grew faster among women than men. However, the biggest growth in employment amongst women has been in the “community and social personal services” services sector, and within that in the private sector. Lower-level jobs like cleaners are therefore on the rise and the Women’s report points out that there is a much larger proportion of women likely to be employed as domestic workers than men, with black people being more likely than any other race group to be in low-paid work. Also, more than 50 percent of women earn no more than R2 500 per month, compared to 33.2 percent of men.


Because of low income levels, women at the lower end of the economy are not able to access finance as easily as men. It is noted in the Report on the Status of Women that, "in developing countries where women are legally able to access fiannce, they are typically not deemed creditworthy due to the fact that they likely do not hold formal jobs of posess the title to their houses." This leads to women turning mostly to micro-lenders to borrow money at exhorbiatant interest rates.

The proportion of South African women borrowing money is slightly higher than that for men, but more women borrow on store credit and friends and family than men – as opposed to regulated financial institutions and banks. Significantly though, the proportion of women borrowing money for education or school fees is 1.5 times higher for women than men, and more than half of women said they borrowed money to buy food in 2014.

A lack of financial literacy among women is cited as being higher than among men, and: “women score significantly lower than men in areas of financial control, planning, choosing financial products, and gender knowledge and understanding of finance.”


According to the Department of Women's report, the difference between genders when it comes to those living in poverty is on the rise. In addition, "poor women, on average, are living further below the poverty line than poor men.

“Overall, while it is clear that overall poverty remains high for both genders and are of national concern, the plight of women is particularly alarming, especially when evaluating poverty at the household-level."

Racial differences in poverty rates are equally stark, states the report. More than 60 percent of black South African women live below the lower poverty line, compared to 35.1 percent among coloured women, and 1.6 percent among white women.

Female-headed households consistently have less access to public assets than men. The biggest difference can be seen with the proportion of men and women who have access to flush toilets – 71.4 percent of male households have this access, while only 57.2 percent of female-headed households do.

As women thus tend to live in greater poverty, with less basic services offered to them, they are “almost always more likely than men to be receiving a grant.”

The cost of abuse against women also needs to be factored into this viscious cycle. According to the Report, “conservative estimates of the economic costs of loss of productivity due to violence against women are around 2 percent of global GDP.

“Short-term costs associated with violence against women include loss of earnings for time off work, moving expenses, school transfers, trips to the police station, accessing court services, childcare costs, doctors’ appointments, and psychological support.

Long-term costs involve legal fees, medical and psychological treatment, disability leave from work, on-going court dates, and follow-ups to the police stations. The mental health cost of violence against women has not been researched.”

The face of this cycle

Princess Nduzini is one of the women who experiences the debt trap at the bottom end of the economy first-hand.

Video by Mamaponya Motsai


At the top end of the economic sector, women also face inherent bias. Here, again, a negative cycle perpetuates itself, which can be set out as seen below:


Despite the fact that less women are likely to enrol in higher degrees, those who do do this and secure jobs based on that are still at the receiving end of discrimination. The Department of Women's report states, "economically active women…have higher levels of education that their male counterparts." Significantly though, they earn up to 42 percent less than their male counterparts. In addition, women spend more time in work than men at each age and women between the ages of 30 and 45, “face particularly large demands on their time, spending more than eight hours on average per day in productive activities.

“It is estimated that a woman would cumulatively spend 15 500 more hours than a man in productive activities between the ages of 10 and 70 years. The demands women face on their time hold important implications for their labour force participation. Raising participation would require interventions related to the provision of childcare and related services to allow women to actively seek, find, and keep employment.

“Alternatively (or in addition) South African society needs to find a more equitable gender-distribution of unpaid work through societal norms regarding the distinction between 'women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’ within the home.”

The Report notes research that states: "if the gender gaps were the result of discrimination, then women in the upper quantiles will become more disadvantaged over time." Due to this, women make a smaller contribution to income tax in South Africa, impacting directly on the macro economy.

The Report notes: “It is important here to acknowledge the impact of Apartheid in terms of the spatial mismatch between economic activity and population. This is particularly important in the context of the fact that working-age women are more likely to be located in the former homeland areas than their male counterparts.

“These areas are characterised by low levels of formal sector economic activity, and work-seekers are often confronted by the high cost associated with seeking employment.”


It was noted earlier that the majority of working-age women are located in rural areas. In these areas, traditional rules dictate that men get preference when it comes to land ownership. This means very few women in these areas have the privilege of land ownership to raise capital against. It is noted that, "land is an important source of security against poverty."

Women are generally less involved in land restitution programmes and concern has been raised that the “un-gendered” nature of the programme leads to little prioritisation of women.

As women generally earn less, and face limitations to land and property ownership, men own more assets than women in South Africa.

Access to credit

An individual's ability to access credit and raise capital to, for example, create their own business, is directly linked to asset ownership. Women are therefore inherently disadvantaged in South Africa in this regard.

The Report states that barriers to business financing for women remains due to a lack of collateral and a lack of financial literacy. Barriers to women accessing credit include, according to the report, legal constraints, employment and income limitations, exclusion from economic decision-making, attitudes towards women, a lack of exposure to business and finance environments, and business maturity and financial institution policies. Women at the top end of the economy therefore struggle to access affordable credit. As noted earlier, they are more likely to incur debt for education, but this is at a higher cost than for men.

The Commission for Gender Equality's Janine Hicks says the root of the discrimination women face in the economy lies in patriarchy, attitudes, and perception. She says systemic challenges that inhibit women’s involvement in business need to be addressed as well though, with the possible solution for the vicious cycle to be found in proper education for girls.


Despite the remaining challenges, which are both systemic and societal, strides have been made in gender parity in the economy. These include:

South Africa is the most gender equal in Sub-Saharan Africa when observing portions of the female and male populations that have an account with a financial institution.

The main reason for the substantial jump in financial inclusion for women is lined to the establishment of the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA), which required recipients of social grants to have a bank account.

South Africa's mortality ration is less than two-thirds of that of the region and the adolescent birth rate is half of that of the region. 

Women occupy twice and many seats in Parliament as a proportion of the total in South Africa than they do in Sub-Saharan Africa, while there is close to gender parity (and at a much higher level) in the proportion of adults with secondary education.

In terms of the Gender Inequality Index, therefore, South Africa performs relatively well compared with the rest of the region. Significant strides have been made in achieving gender equity within education in South Africa.

On average, females receive 9.8 years of education in South Africa, compared to 3.7 years in Sub-Saharan Africa, while males receive 10.1 years and 5.4 years respectively. 

Importantly, the gap in mean years of education between males and females is substantially smaller in absolute and relative terms in South Africa compared to the broader region.

Adult literacy rates are almost as high as youth literacy rates. 

This is the result of gradually improving educational attendance rates over time, combined with the focus on Adult Basic Education and Training in terms of the Adult Education and Training Act of 2000.

The female literacy rate has been rising more rapidly that tat of men, albeit that male adult literacy rates are still higher. Similarly, the female youth literacy rate is also increasing.

The vast majority of South Africans can be considered as functionally literate according to reach quoted by the report, and is increasing gradually over time.

The number of women in academic posts has increased significantly since 1994. 

However, women are still under-represented in this sector as well due to lower rewards and less recognition than men.

Income levels in South Africa are high relative to the rest of the region. 

However, the report states, "the key issue is that South Africa fares poorly with regards to the economic- and education-related indicators.

Data indicated that women are increasingly choosing to enter the labour force. 

There are, in other words, some changes in attitudes and norms surrounding women in the workplace taking place.

The majority of workers in the formal sector have employers that make contributiosn to the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and to pension funds on their behalf.

The majority of formal workers being report being entitled to leave – paid, sick, or parental leave.

70 percent of the employed in the formal sector report usual working hours of between 40 and 49 hours per week.

The past 25 years has seen significant progress in reducing global poverty.

 However, roughly a billion people across the globe are still living in poverty.

The evidence suggests a decline in both money-metric poverty (income and expenditure) and asset poverty among women.


At the beginning of the Status of Women report is states: "Education is central to gender equality." It states in the executive summary: “without investment in education, countries' ability to harness the demographic dividend is significantly impaired.” Later it adds that higher education is important as the country faces a chronic skills gap.

Some of the recommendations made to empower more women economically, include:

The report indicates and accepts that there are limitations to the research and data they had access to. 

This report is to be the first in a series that unpacks the role of women in society, and will hopefully shed more light on how gender challenges can be addressed. Better data needs to be developed to interrogate chalanges faced by women in the economy and society in general.

A set of guidelines for recording women's ownership of land and property should be urgently developed.

There needs to be a concerted effort within the education sector to foster initiatives that motivate and encourage young women and girls into fields of study previously regarded as male domains, notably those related to maths and science.

Financial literacy, which links to access to finance, needs to be developed among women.

There needs to be greater determination in addressing root causes in the social sector that leads to issues like girls dropping out of school due to pregnancy or due to domestic and family commitments.

There needs to be continued advocacy and awareness-raising to change gender norms and practices that continue to keep women confined to stereotyped gender roles in the labour market.

Accessible and affordable child care facilities such as crèches and nursery schools and early childhood development centres need to be made available.

The Status of Women in the Economy report concludes:

"For women's status in the economy to be truly transformed in all areas, a national discussion around the various gender stereotypes and practices is required. This is not just 'a women’s issue’ in that these norms and stereotypes do not only constrain female’s choices, but may also remove the power of choice from men."