New Economies Must Prioritise the Inclusion of Women

In March this year the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 was released. It is a rich source of information, covering 156 countries, and it evaluates the gender gap in politics, the economy, health and education. 

It is important because it covers a year of COVID and associated public health measures across the world, and it is also important for its basic, bleak conclusion: this long year has affected women more harshly than men, and has reversed some of the hard-won gains that have been made towards gender equality.

Globally, the areas of political and economic  participation, in particular, have seen some reversals of gender parity.

South Africa has slipped from 17th to 18th out of 156 countries over this year. Like many other countries, we are close to gender parity in health and in education. We can also be proud of the political empowerment of our women, where we rank 14th in the world.   

The problem lies with women’s economic participation and opportunity, where we now rank 92nd. That would always be cause for concern, but even more because we have dropped 13 places since 2006.

It is meaningless to speak of the empowerment of women and exclude economic empowerment from it.

In countries, communities, households, the extent to which women are able to claim and use their own power, whether, in other words, they are free to choose and live lives they value, cannot be separated from the extent to which they are or are not economically free.

In the same month as the gender gap report was released, almost half of women in South Africa who wanted to work were unable to find work. That is deeply shocking, and when we add age and race to gender, things become even more stark:  a Black women, 21 years of age, who is available to work and looking, would’ve had a 29% chance in 2008 of getting a job. In 2015 she had a 34% chance: not great, but better. But now, in 2021, her chances have dwindled to only 17%. 

We dare not entrench, amongst South Africans in general but specifically amongst our younger women and girls, a sense that opportunities are limited and declining for them to participate fully in the economy. 

Over the twelve COVID months to March 2021, 1,4 million jobs were lost in South Africa.

Proportionately, women have been more severely affected: women’s job losses of 643 000 since March 2020 represent a decrease in total women’s jobs of 9%. In other words, almost 1 out of 10 jobs held by women has been lost in just 12 months.  We have not done well at protecting the most vulnerable jobs, which has further intensified the social impact of these job losses.

Smaller retailers, including spaza shops and the like, represent a significant instance of micro- and survivalist entrepreneurship in South Africa. It is also an important employer of women working for themselves. But 73 000 jobs have been lost here since March 2020, of which 60 000 have been women’s jobs.

We need to build new economies: this may not be the ideal time, but we no longer have the luxury of procrastination.

Fundamentally, the economic solutions we require are not narrow, technical matters, but shifts in values, shifts in our national conversations about what is truly important.  

South Africa is the embodiment, tragically, of how all the intangible factors that don’t get counted in the national accounts (trauma, social tension, lack of good role models, inequities) constrain our getting to our economic potential. 

Getting these conversations right, addressing our shadows, builds the trust, the cohesion, the willingness to take a longer-term view, which then ignites conventional measures of economic performance such as GDP at a national level and productivity and innovation at organizational levels.

The good news is that the kinds of debates we are having in South Africa, because we must have them, are occurring all over the world in many spaces.

The21st century may well be one of recurring crises, crises that require partnership across the neat lines we sometimes want to draw, between public and private sector, between one country and another, between insiders and outsiders.

We have learnt from COVID that we can do far more together than we can do alone: the important thing is to carry this spirit forward.

Inclusion, resilience and cooperation will be the defining  principles of the new economies we need, and the full economic participation of women is both one of the goals we should aim for, and a necessary condition for the needed changes in our economic mindset.

Author: Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Cofounder and CEO of the Motsepe Foundation

Published in Business Report on 10 August 2021.

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