Gender inequality in workplace remains uncomfortable conversation for many

Mbuyiselo Botha Gender Imbizo
It appears women will have to push a lot harder this year and beyond to fast-track gender changes in the workplace and society in general.
It appears women will have to push a lot harder this year and beyond to fast-track gender changes in the workplace and society in general.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

A few years ago, at a social gathering, I mumbled: "Women will have to wait for about two centuries for workplace equality."

"Yes, two centuries," I repeated.

The disbelief lasted a millisecond before everyone who heard the statement went back to their little corners and continued with what seemed like more cheerful conversations.

Later that night, as the numbers dwindled and conversations dried up, a friend of mine, who is a human resources specialist, pulled me to a corner and said: "I did not think that was the time and the place for that conversation, but since you brought it up, I want you to know that at my organisation we consistently take the necessary steps to tackle the scourge of workplace inequality."

Without me even asking he went on to name some of the steps his organisation takes to address the gender gap - implementing gender- neutral recruitment processes, reviewing salaries, having a well-defined policy on discrimination, ensuring that women are supported into more senior roles and so on. You know, the usual.

I was intrigued by the "my organisation" proviso, a clause that highlights that the fight against workplace inequality is still, unfortunately, hampered by those who feel "I am doing my part".

According to a report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) last month, the workplace inequality gap has further widened and is not expected to be closed until 2276 despite women closing the gender gap in areas such as politics.

Two years ago, the WEF reported that the global pay gap would take about 202 years to close, adding 54 years to the projection that was made in 2018.

The direness of the situation can no longer be overlooked and swept under the carpet, even at our social gatherings. The increase in the gender gap shows that there is a structural impediment that prevents women from achieving professional success, which means no matter how hard women work, chances of progression are minimal.

The reality is that the gender gap was borne out of neoliberalism and patriarchy, two of arguably the deadliest and most discriminatory systems in the history of civilisation. But systems can be toppled.

SA also has a great history of demonstrations that changed the course of this country forever. As I have already mentioned, SA has a story to tell when it comes to dethroning systems through consistent and tireless collective mobilisation.

Change cannot be driven through slogans and isolated efforts, no matter how good the intentions. Change is not simply about ticking boxes and meeting quotas. Change is a result of a concerted and systematic effort by all stakeholders working together. The latter changes the system, while the former simply applies a bandage to a broken leg.

As grim as the situation is, I write this with hope and I am particularly inspired by the women of Switzerland who, for about 30 years now, have nationwide protests every year demanding equality and higher pay. The last demonstration was last month.

Recently, the women of SA shut down the streets of Sandton on the back of a surge in violence against women and now we are as close as we have ever been to a fully funded National Strategic Plan.

It cannot be that women in SA and the world over not only fear for their lives, but they also have to work hard in the workplace while the promise of change remains two centuries away.

Let us be pragmatic in our solutions. That way the gatekeepers will realise that the system cannot and should not run smoothly for as long as women are discriminated against.

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