We have a human problem

Women’s month has come and gone but I believe we need to make a point of ensuring that one month becomes twelve months where the many issues facing women are concerned.

From men not paying child maintenance to the abuse of women to sexual harassment to companies not recognising women’s abilities and paying women less than men … we need to address all these issues head-on.

Worldwide women currently make up 40 – 45% of the work force, yet a recent article in Business Day shared the International Labour Organisation’s Global Wage Report’s statistics, which show that women’s salaries are 4 – 36% lower than those paid to men.

The article went on to say that in South Africa women earn 15-17% less than men for doing the same work. Despite our legislative framework, which is supposed to ensure gender pay parity, we are not seeing this materialize in either the private or public sector.

Compounding the economic inequality is the fact that women are glaringly underrepresented in business leadership positions.

Come on South Africa, fair is fair, it’s non-negotiable that women must be given the same opportunities as men, and the same salaries as men. And men, across the board, must start supporting this and acting on this.

I have to say it makes me feel uncomfortable to even talk about this because it all too easily starts sounding patronizing. But talk I must.

While I applaud companies for driving a gender transformation programme, at the same time I cannot help questioning why women are still so underrepresented on executive committees. Take Vodacom as an example, where women comprise 17% of their executive committees. Are the 87% of men at this level so much more advanced than their women counterparts? I think not.

I further question Vodacom’s Integrated Report of the 31 March 2015, which states that the ratio of the average basic salary of men to women in the company is 1.4 times. It has remained constant since 2011, and it begs the question why it has not changed.

I hasten to emphasise that the same questions need to be asked of all companies who pay women less for the same job and where senior executive or CEO positions remain predominantly male. What are companies doing to change this? It is a critical aspect of transformation.

If women continue to be regarded as worth less than men or as being less competent in leadership positions than men, we are perpetuating an unhealthy society based on prejudice and contrived stereotypes instead of on human ability and talent.

Stereotypes, it must be added, are extremely powerful and perpetuated by the media, as the following insightful study shows.

In September 2014 the first-ever global study on gender representation in movies was launched in New York by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, UN Women, The Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Southern California.

Its findings revealed deep-seated discrimination and stereotyping of women by the international film industry. One finding is that only 22.5 percent of the fictional on-screen workforce is comprised of women.

“Media images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases,” says actress Geena Davis, the founder and Chair of her namesake institute on Gender in Media.

She explains that movies can therefore be used to change what the future looks like where women are concerned:

“There are woefully few women CEOs in the world, but there can be lots of them in films. How do we encourage more girls to pursue careers in business or science, technology and engineering? By casting droves of women in these careers as well as in politics, law and other professions in movies.”

To date, the opposite has happened according to the study. Male characters in movies outnumber female characters as attorneys and judges (13 to 1), professors (16 to 1), and doctors (5 to 1). In contrast, the ratios tipped in the favour of women when it came to hypersexualisation. On screen women are twice as likely as men to be shown not only in sexually revealing clothes or nude, but also as thin.

Commenting on these result, Stacy L. Smith, the study’s principal investigator said: “These results illuminate that globally, we have more than a film problem when it comes to valuing girls and women. We have a human problem.”

We have to address this human problem in South Africa and worldwide because this human problem has multiple symptoms, including the disrespect and abuse of women.

A powerful start in turning this around is how we acknowledge and remunerate women in business. We are in the extremely fortunate postion to have no shortage of highly competent, highly qualified women in South Africa. What is required now is meaningful change.

This article was written by Professor Owen Skae, President of the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA) and the Director of Rhodes Business School.

Professor Skae writes in his individual capacity and hence the views expressed are not necessarily those of SABSA or the member schools. For more information on SABSA and its members, visit its website www.sabsa.co.za

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 364, October, 2015. It is reproduced with their permission.


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