The ladies’ way

The ladies’ way

Inequality in the workplace is still real. ASTRID DE LA REY investigates whether there has been progress in terms of gender discrimination in the workplace

Not too long ago this article would have revolved around whether women should be allowed to work at all. Society has, however, come a long way in recent years, and today it’s not unusual to see women succeeding in every industry. There is, however, still a lot of work to be done before all is equal in the workplace. Thankfully, there are better structures in place to enable this process.

Nandisile Thoko Mpumlwana, deputy chairperson of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), understands the obstacles and frustrations that so many women face in the workplace on a daily basis.

Mpumlwana holds degrees in education from the University of South Africa and the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. She was also awarded a Master’s degree in the fields of curriculum development and teacher education by Michigan State University in the United States.

She has dedicated her life to teaching and the promotion of education and has a keen sense of social justice. She is also a shining example of what can be achieved.

“One of the first things I like to remind people of is to never take for granted how far we have come and how much we have already achieved. Whenever I feel a bit frustrated or demotivated, and feel as though we’re not getting anywhere, I look at the incredible progress we’ve made in South Africa. That’s what keeps me going,” she says.

A key point Mpumlwana makes is that the South African Constitution supports justice and equality for all, and the CGE focuses on all types of discrimination, not only that relating specifically to women.

“For many years, and with good reason, the focus at the CGE was mainly on women, but these days we also provide support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. Our evolving society demands true equality for all, and that is very inspiring.”

Mpumlwana has the following advice: “The first thing we should all do as women is to support each other. That doesn’t mean women who are not qualified for a specific job should be promoted; it means women should help and teach one another. Lift as you climb – don’t break each other down.”

Mpumlwana says that there are so many opportunities going to waste. “There are numerous preferential procurement programmes in various industries, but many women aren’t aware of them, or are too shy to make use of them. There are also tenders that are put aside specifically for women. Talk openly about quotas and stop feeling shy or embarrassed to bring it up in the workplace,” she advises.

Inequality hides in the detail

While South Africa has made impressive progress in addressing gender inequality in the workplace, there’s no denying that there’s still a huge gap. There are many reasons why qualified women are still being sidelined. One of the most frustrating is that often the basic tools to get the job done simply aren’t designed with female workers in mind.

Dr Spo Kgalamono, occupational medicine specialist at the National Institute for Occupational Health (NHLS), explains that most workplaces are still set up to accommodate only male workers.

“It’s all in the detail. We work in a world where everything from the standard office chair to earthmoving equipment is designed for use by the ‘average male’. So, even if a woman passes all qualifications with flying colours, she still may not be able to do the job as well as her male colleagues simply because her work environment makes it impossible for her to do so,” she says.

It’s a biological fact that men are generally bigger and stronger than women, but, in today’s world of advanced machinery, very few job roles require a person to spend all day physically handling heavy objects. Most industries make use of constantly evolving technology and equipment to make these tough jobs easier.

“The problem is that women are not taken into account in the design of such equipment, so in the end it doesn’t necessarily make the job easier for them at all. In fact, it can hinder and endanger them. It is, however, a really easy problem to solve if all players are committed to designing and providing equipment that can be operated by both genders,” says Kgalamono.

While she agrees that nobody expects this to happen overnight, she says it is frustrating how little progress has been made in this area.

One of the most common and glaring examples of inequality is in the area of personal protective equipment (PPE). According to Kgalamono, research conducted by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) showed that only nine percent of women employed in the energy sector have PPE that is specifically designed for women.

In this case, the problem doesn’t necessarily rest with the availability of PPE designed for women – it seems to be that many employers either aren’t aware that these options are available, or they subscribe to the “one-size-fits-all” philosophy.

So, yes, gender inequality is still present in the South African economy and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get it eradicated completely. The good news is that small changes can make a big difference. For example, employers who ensure that their female staff are supplied with the correct equipment are likely to see a big improvement in productivity.

This is also a perfect time for industrious women to play a key role in the future of the South African workforce. Kgalamono encourages all women who face challenges of discrimination in their workplace to become a part of the solution.

“We need more women involved in the planning and design of work environments and equipment. We need to speak up, get creative, and start coming up with solutions that work for us,” she concludes.

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