Bridging the Gap: Women’s Leadership and Women’s Pay in South Africa - We Should Be Ashamed!

21 April 2024, IOL Business Report 

The 2023 Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) Report provides a crucial snapshot of the state of women's leadership and advancement in South Africa's workplaces - public and private sector. Read with the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2023 the findings show that while we are making (very slow) progress on women’s leadership representation in South Africa, we are actually also regressing on major indicators related to women’s advancement. 

Women’s Leadership 

The 2023 CEE Report notes that women still make up less than 30% of top management in South Africa. This percentage has only increased by a measly 3.6% between 2017 (22.9%) and 2022/23 (26.5%). The private sector is especially pathetic at 25.3% while the public sector has at least broken the 30% threshold with women being 36.9% of top management. White men make up 52.6% of top management in the private sector, white women make up 13.2% and African women make up only 5.4% of top management in this sector, even though they make up 36% of the economically active population (EAP) while white men make up only 4.5% of the EAP, and white women make up 3.5% of EAP.

At the senior management level, women make up 37.2%  but African women make up only 7.8% of women in senior management in the private sector (and around 30% in the public sector). This stark figure should also be seen in the context of women making up 48% of the next level (professionally qualified) because this is the level that feeds women’s advancement into the senior management level. This highlights that the glass ceiling remains a painful reality for women. 

It is also important to highlight here that professionally qualified African women are over-represented in the following sectors:

  • Administrative and support activities (40%)
  • Arts, entertainment and recreation (42.2%)
  • Human health and social work (47.6%).

There is no doubt that women and African women in particular continue to be over-represented in “care work” which is often underpaid with limited opportunities for significant upward mobility. The WEF report highlights that South Africa has made significant progress in education, with women outnumbering men in tertiary education enrolment. The report shows that women account for 57.3% of all tertiary education students, ranking South Africa 1st globally. This should bode well for the future, as educated women are more likely to enter the workforce and pursue leadership positions. Yet leadership figures show a different reality. It is therefore crucial that when we talk about how to advance women’s leadership we understand the nuances of where women are located and how the systemic, legislative and social barriers can coalesce to hold back progress.

The Gender Pay Gap

According to the WEF report, South Africa ranks 18 th out of 146 countries in terms of gender equality. While this may seem encouraging, a closer examination of the data reveals that the country still has a significant way to go in the crucial area of economic opportunity where we rank 81st. A deeper analysis of this area reflects that the gender pay gap remains a significant challenge. South Africa ranks 111th in terms of equal pay for work of equal value; highlighting that we are not making progress on gender equality where it matters. In a country where, according to Statistics South Africa,  42% of children live in female-headed households, and understanding where women are located economically, the gender pay gap exacerbates inequality significantly. 

In general, research shows that women earn 27% less than their male counterparts in South Africa. However, while the CEE report makes reference to the legislative requirement of equal pay for work of equal value, it does not offer any significant analysis or guidelines on how to address this crucial concern.

It is important that despite the existence of key institutions to monitor and advance equality, we are failing women. The CEE reports every year on the meagre progress we are making but does not seem to focus on employment equity as a key driver of economic and employment (in)equality. It offers very little strategic guidance (or consequences) for employers who continue to discriminate on remuneration. Sadly, the CEE has failed to play any meaningful role in shaking employers out of their (discriminatory) comfort zone. Every year it reports the same information in the same way with no critical analysis, commentary or action. They should lead the way by sharing positive case studies and providing tools and resources to change the status quo. They have the legal power to bring out the big stick - the Employment Equity Act has been in force since 1998 and we have yet to see employers facing any major consequences.

Let’s blame Men and Employers instead of Women

It has become so normalised to blame women for where we find ourselves. So I want to be clear - men are the problem. They hold the legislative power; the economic power; the cultural power and the decision making power; which gives them the power to drive change. Yet women are still having to fight for what they are entitled to; women are being told to go for training and improve their skills (even though the numbers of women exceed men in tertiary education); and it is women’s responsibility to fix themselves and the unequal society. It is glaringly obvious that where men lead and commit to gender equity, it can lead to significant improvement in the lives of women, children and communities. We have seen this in the public sector where women have risen up the ranks and received better pay; and we see in some of the private sector companies such as Barloworld that have shown how advancing women’s leadership and strong financial results can live together in harmony. 

So Mr Employer... What are you waiting for?


Shireen Motara is an African Feminist and Women’s Leadership Coach. She is the Founder CEO of Tara Transform and The Next Chapter; and the business owner of four online brands in the custom gifting and home improvement spaces.





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