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Opinion Piece: Careers of SA businesswomen constrained by unsupportive male partners

Monday, 26 November 2018: A supportive relationship with male partners is a key factor in women succeeding in the workplace. This is a rarity in South Africa and it is negatively affecting women’s careers.

Gender discrimination in the workplace is regulated and while we still have a long way to go in South Africa, women are making some progress in achieving gender equality at work. But corporates who want to reap the benefits of having women in senior roles need to understand the issues which constrain women outside the work environment. Statistics show that women across the world spend more time doing housework than their male partners. They perform the more tedious tasks of shopping, cleaning and cooking and are more likely than men to scale back their careers to make the family a priority.

The model of the male breadwinner still dominates gender role division in the home and this spills over into the workplace. In a conservative country like South Africa, there are men who still assert their masculinity by sitting on the couch watching tv while their wives, who are also employed full time, do the lion’s share of the work at home.

In 2016, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) confirmed that South African women spend, on average, 4.3 hours per day on home and care work while men spend just 1.5 hours. Women have to combine productive, paid work with care work at home.

These findings are in line with a national study done in South Africa in 2000 and repeated in 2010 by Statistics South Africa in all nine provinces.

One of the most important career decisions I made, was the choice of my husband who agreed to a 50/50 partnership at home and in the care of our children. Early in our marriage, we recognised that for both of us to have successful careers, we would both need to make sacrifices.

Being a very hands-on father and comfortable with the many tasks that accompany bringing up children, we have together navigated a supportive and workable relationship. We also agreed what costs each of us would cover – it is a 50/50 split. While there is no formal agreement about this relationship, there is a deep respect for what is required to run a household and raise children, so an equal allocation of roles has been pivotal to a successful 18-year marriage.

Corporates

While corporates don’t have the ability to influence gender roles in the home, they need to be clear on the role gender plays at work and at home. Family circumstances have a significant influence on the decisions women make about work.

A ‘good mother’ is typically measured by devotion to children’s needs, the availability of time to address these needs, and family stability evidenced by a clean and well-nourished household.

In contrast, the ‘ideal worker’ is available 24/7 and does not have obligations outside of work. She makes arrangements for outsourced care to ensure she is available. Working women experience severe time poverty and many are stressed because they believe they are failing at both the ‘good mother’ and the ‘ideal worker’ standard.

Sometimes companies need to treat women and men differently to achieve equality. For instance, maternity leave is work – it is not a time when women go on lunch dates and relax – it is work at home. Paternity leave should be taken seriously by South African companies so that men can do their part of the care work during this time.

On a more practical level, flexible work hours and childcare facilities at work should not be seen as luxuries for women. It benefits companies when mothers and fathers have peace of mind about who looks after their children because it allows them to be more productive at the office.

Businesses should consider whether company culture creates an unspoken bias against women. Culture can punish those who choose not to participate in out-of-office networking events over going home to their families instead of socialising with people of influence at work. Even with the best intentions, corporates may inadvertently be thwarting women’s careers by ignoring their realities.

As Prof Amanda Gouws notes in the SABPP Report on fairness in relation to work, employers need to understand that both the workplace and the home are gendered. There is no such a thing as a gender-neutral space where gender plays no role.

When corporates take the realities of women seriously, they enable women and men to participate differently at work, bringing their full selves and talents.

Uplifting women in the workforce and in their own businesses could have far-reaching impact. In South Africa, women are generally supporting entire families and research has shown that they are more likely to make a social contribution than men. It is a monumental tragedy to keep women on the outskirts of the economy.