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Women in SA continue to bear a double (or triple) burden

- Arabo K. Ewinyu and Olwethu Shedi

In the post-apartheid era, women in South Africa have made significant strides in the labour market.

Economists speak of the strict labour force participation rate as the sum of individuals, employed and unemployed people searching for work, expressed as a share of the total working-age population. 

Among women, this rate has increased significantly from about 40% in 1994 to 48.9% in 2011. By the fourth quarter of 2019 — just before the pandemic — the participation rate for women of working age was 53.8%, 12 percentage points lower than that of men. 

This increase in women’s share of the labour force and their share of employment is referred to as the feminisation of the labour force.

However, the increase in the participation rate of woman workers outpaced their employment rate which has resulted in higher unemployment rates for women than men. This trend has continued, with the former group being more vulnerable to unemployment compared to their male counterparts such that, in the fourth quarter of 2019, female unemployment rate was 31.3%, higher than both the overall unemployment rate (29.1%) and the male unemployment rate (27.2%).

The feminisation of the labour force has coincided with rising levels of of low-paid and insecure forms of employment for woman workers. Where employed, women are overwhelmingly in low-paid occupations, the informal sector, working part time or in other flexible and insecure forms of work. 

When intersected with race, the outcomes for African and coloured women in the labour market remain particularly stark and the conclusion is that the progress has been unequal for all women in South Africa.

When employed, women continue to face a wage penalty as they often earn less than men, even in similar occupations. This is referred to as the gender pay gap, defined as the difference between the average earnings of male and female employees. 

In a country as unequal as South Africa, it is informative to also also calculate the gender pay gap at the median due to the unequal distribution of income where a few high-earning individuals might skew the average wage. 

In 2018, Stats SA estimated the median wage for female workers to be 0.76. Stated differently, women earn R76 for every R100 earned by men. This and other calculations of the gender pay gap rely on survey data which is reliable due to the careful sampling and data collection process, however, the limitation of such data is that respondents are sometimes reluctant to reveal actual earnings and that high-earning individuals are often under-sampled. 

To counter this, two pieces of work have used reported earnings to calculate earning differentials. In the first, employment equity data was relied on to estimate the extent and location of gender inequalities. The analysis reveals that men out-earn women across different occupational levels. By race, the gender pay gap was lowest for African women and highest for white women. 

In the second, five firms provided actual earnings as part of a pilot project to estimate the feasibility of gender pay gap reporting in South Africa. The average pay gap ranged between 0.69 and 0.95, and in two instances, female workers earned more than their male colleagues.  

But what explains these gender pay gaps? Most cited is occupation segregation whereby male workers are increasingly situated in high-paying sectors and occupations while women are in lowwage positions. This occupational segregation is particularly evident for African and coloured female workers

This occupational segregation is particularly evident for African and coloured female workers who continue to occupy low-paying occupations. Even within the same occupational level, women might be employed at lower “grades” due to ingrained bias in hiring and promotion, family responsibilities or other cultural norms that hinder the full participation of female workers

Due to gendered social norms, women spend disproportionately more time on unpaid care work than men. Unpaid care work is an integral part of economic activity and personal well-being. If no one had children or took care of their families, the economy would come to a halt. Yet this care work is systematically undervalued and invisible. 

Women’s unpaid care work limits their ability to pursue other interests, such as education and employment, and this results in time poverty, poor health and well-being, and hinders women’s ability to move and switch between jobs. This entrenches women’s unequal status in society. 

Care work and other family responsibilities act as both an impediment to accessing employment and, where available, to working full time. Time Use Surveys tell us how people of various ages and backgrounds allocate time to different activities. Globally, it was estimated, in 2014, women spent an average of three to six hours a day on unpaid care work, while men spent 30 minutes to two hours. 

In South Africa women spend, on average, over two hours more per day on domestic and care activities, while men spend over an hour more on production work. Men of all ages spend more time on paid work than women. This is the case for the entire population of individuals aged 10 and above — men spend 3.5 hours per day in paid work compared to 2.1 hours for women. 

This indicates that even from an early age, girls are being socialised into social norms that will have a long-term impact on employment, earnings and personal freedom.

Women’s unpaid care work is negatively correlated with labour force participation rates. A 2014  OECD Development Centre Study showed that in countries where women spend an average of five hours on care a day, only 50% of the women of working age were actively looking for a job or employed. In countries where women spend an average of three hours a day on care work, the labour force participation rate for women rose to 60%.  

Times of crisis, and policies enacted in response to such shifts, will affect men and women differently. This was laid bare during the Covid-19 crisis and the resultant lockdowns, which exposed and widened gender inequality. It was clear from the onset of the pandemic that, although it affected all lives and livelihoods, women were at a greater disadvantage as the economic fallout had a regressive effect on gender equality

NIDS-CRAM is a nationally representative data set that sampled the same individuals over a couple of months to ask various individual and household-level questions related to Covid-19. Data were collected over five waves. The findings from the first wave showed women were more likely to lose their jobs during Covid, as women’s employment levels reduced to 36% in April 2020 (46% pre-pandemic). Male employment reduced to 54% from 59% pre-pandemic. Among women who kept their jobs, the average hours worked fell to 23 a week (from 35) compared to 29 hours for men (from 39). 

Not only did Covid-19 negatively affect female employment rates but it also increased the burden of care for women as the demand for unpaid care work increased during the pandemic and the lockdowns. Although both men and women were working from home, women were still overwhelmingly responsible for unpaid care work. 

In South Africa, where both men and women indicated that they resided with a child, both parents reported spending additional hours on childcare. However, these differences are very gendered as about 80% of women, compared to 65% of men, reported to have been spending 4 extra hours on childcare. 

With the reopening of schools, and as lockdown restrictions eased, those living with children indicated fewer hours spent on childcare, however, women continued to spend more time on childcare than men — regardless of their employment and marital status. In addition, such care responsibilities hindered their labour market prospects as they could not spend the same amount of time searching for jobs or work as they did before the pandemic. 

In his speech in celebration of Women’s Day this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged that the time had come to pay women for the work they do at home. This is a tacit recognition of the burden of unpaid care work that is overwhelmingly borne by women. This, of course, raises the question: how do we value such work? 

In Olwethu Shedi’s work for her master’s degree, she estimated the value of unpaid work and found it could be set at a monthly rate ranging from R638 to about R2 572, in 2000. Using 2010 data, this was estimated to range between R1 118 and R3 336. Acknowledging and remunerating women for their unpaid work would begin the work of ensuring gender equity.

Arabo Ewinyu is a research manager at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. She has an MCom in economics from Wits. 

Olwethu Shedi is a junior researcher at the Centre for Competition Regulation and Economic Development at the University of Johannesburg. She recently completed her MCom in economics (with distinction) at the University of the Witwatersrand. She writes in her personal capacity.

*This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian