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Transforming the workplace for women in agriculture and beyond

As we have just celebrated another Women’s Month, acknowledging the vital role women played to bring South Africa back into the light, it becomes challenging to ignore the problematic way women are treated, especially in their workplaces. This can be the case in any sector, and in agriculture this may include farmworkers, but also office workers in different parts of the agricultural value chain. This includes issues of inflexible working conditions, as well as shocking statistics about aspects like workplace sexual harassment of which women are by far the majority of victims, and men are the vast majority of perpetrators. Agri-sector-specific statistics are not widely available, therefore the focus on general issues, that have relevance to all sectors.

Traditional workplaces can be deeply unequal places, based on a patriarchally established understanding of productivity, which often includes very little flexibility in terms of workplace or working hours. In short, a workplace that is designed to suit everyone except a mother with small children. If you don’t believe that that is the case, ask women with small children how they find the process of balancing their family responsibility with fulltime work, and let go of the fallacy that women should better their choices. Many women have no choice but to work fulltime, and many women choose to have a career and a family. Both of those sets of circumstances should be respected and celebrated.

In March 2017 Gallup, who is an American research-based, global performance-management consulting company, famous for their global opinion polls, released a comprehensive report entitled “Women in the Workplace”, in conjunction with the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The report was the result of the largest ever survey of its kind in the world. 147 000 respondents from 146 countries were surveyed and their perceptions were captured. This mammoth survey presents us with a very broad, representative set of findings.

One of the highlights was the fact that 70% of women worldwide, preferred paid jobs, despite not all those women having access to the formal labour market. Women feel as much of a need to provide for their families as men do, despite performing most of the unsalaried work in society (childrearing and caring for families, to name two examples).

What is holding women back from paid employment? Firstly, the gender pay gap still exists. In 2015, women in the United States were paid only 80% of what their male colleagues earned, despite doing the same work. That’s a 20% gap, and according to the American Association of University Women, this gap will only likely be closed by 2152. In South Africa, changes were made to our Employment Equity Act to ensure that employees are paid the same for work of equal value. Employers are not allowed to discriminate based on sex or gender, and pay women less than men. Despite this, according to research conducted by the University of Johannesburg women in South Africa still earn 15%-17% less than their male counterparts. This means that women will have to work two months longer to earn the same salary as their male co-workers, while performing exactly the same work.

It is difficult to find any information on what is being done to correct this. In fact, a recent article written by Manglin Pillay, the CEO of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering, underscores the sexism women still face in the workplace. Pillay quoted obscure information indicating that there are so few women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, because women are predisposed to careers as carers. As with the gender pay gap, it’s easier to hide behind the status quo than to actively change the system that ingrained the status quo. Pillay has been challenged on his sexist views, and rightfully so: As one detractor pointed out, how can we simply resign ourselves to not having any female engineers? That means almost everything in the world will be designed to the exclusion of the view of half of the people of the world.

Secondly, women are responsible for the bulk of family responsibility, and caring for children. According to Statistics SA (Gender Statistics 2011), where child care is not available outside the home, women are responsible for caring for the children in the household. The Gallup survey identified family responsibility, and especially childcare responsibility as one of the main impediments to women joining formal employment, and to women excelling in their careers. Women who have had children have stories to tell about the career compromises that are necessitated in their circumstances, which could probably have been avoided if there was more space for flexibility and different ways of working.

In other words: 50% of the global population (roughly) are women. 70% of them would like paid employment. Yet, we are paid less, and our child care responsibilities cause us to be viewed less favourably in our career progression. Unfortunately, there are deeply ingrained cultural views on sex and gender at work, but the Gallup study does show that 66% of men would prefer that women had paid jobs. This is a significant shift in a positive direction, but it means that the mind-shift regarding the way women work, and the way workplaces are organised, needs to happen. The truth is that performance is in many cases still equated to physical hours spent at an office, as opposed to measuring outputs, regardless of hours spent in the office. We need to move past that hurdle before we will be able to say our workplaces are equal and welcoming to women. Furthermore, women’s roles in the household need to be considered: A working mother simply has fewer hours in a day to dedicate to work, as she handles the bulk of household work too. This needs to be recognised.

The answer lies in revolutionising the way we think of workplaces and transforming the workplace to enable women to join formal employment and excel at their careers. It involves changing the perception that the only measure of productivity is time spent at work. It means changing the way we view mothers who work, and prioritising adequate child care. If we do not prioritise these aspects, we will never be able to close the gap and get more women to work, as is their express, surveyed wish.

It is our duty to start prioritising the type of change in a workplace that will allow true empowerment of women, and that we stop excluding half of the talent and intelligence in our society, based on something as arbitrary as sex or gender. A large part of the transformation of the agricultural sector will include the empowerment of women, and this will have to entail highlighting aspects of farming that might be attractive to women and show how agriculture can empower women to build their futures.

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