To paraphrase the great development economist, Amartya Sen, achieving and maintaining gender equity is central to both development and freedom. The expansion of civil rights to women in much of the world in the first half of the 20th century led directly to higher workforce participation by women, more investment in girls and women’s education and health, and also to invest in more public goods in general.
These investments in turn raised the quantity and quality of human resources available to society, leading to higher economic output per head and to faster and more inclusive human development. Greater gender equality, in other words, is good for everyone.
But expressing the point in this way is very dry. When I think about gender equity, I don’t think first about statistics but about how the struggle for freedom and development was waged — and is still being waged — by heroic women. Nothing came easily. Many men of all political persuasions disapproved of women’s activism, and the colonial and apartheid states cracked down ruthlessly. One of my personal heroes, Charlotte Maxeke, led some of the earliest women’s anti-pass protests in the early 1900s — protests that led to many arrests.
The pass laws and the apartheid state only got more oppressive for the next 60 years. The four women who led the Women’s March in 1956 — the event that we commemorate each year on 9 August — collectively spent decades undergoing police harassment, in detention, on trial, under house arrest, and in exile. But these women — and thousands like them — were undeterred. As the song which was composed in their honour famously says: “Wathint` abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo.”
How should we honour these women, advance their legacy, and continue their work of advancing the frontiers of freedom and development?
First, I think, we have to continue to focus on corporate culture. I have two daughters — both strong, smart, determined young women — who will soon be joining the workforce. I often think about what it would have been like for them, if they were starting their careers in banking at the time when I did, nearly 30 years ago. At that time, they would likely have been two of only a handful of women in rooms full of men. And when I think back to that time, I realise that what was then often seen as “normal office banter” was blatant sexism or outright sexual harassment. Thankfully, the corporate world is far more inclusive — and far less insensitive — than it was a generation ago.
But we still have work to do. I have some sympathy for people who complain about the excesses of “wokeness”, particularly when it hinders the expression of reasonable differences of opinion. But I’m also very much aware that the women’s marchers of 1956 would have been seen as the equivalent of “woke” by many of their contemporaries. I would rather be “woke” than unconscious. It’s important that corporations continue to think carefully about how to ensure that our cultures and expectations maintain dignity and respect differences.
This steady focus on culture must be accompanied by an equally deliberate focus on the numbers. At Standard Bank, a third of our board of directors are women, including the chairman (and yes, that is the title Ms Nonkululeko Nyembezi prefers) and the chair of our remuneration and audit committees. A quarter of our top executive committee are women, including our chief operating officer and the chief executive of our biggest business unit. Looking more broadly, 34% of our executive leadership are women, 42% of senior management are women, and a majority (58%) of all our employees are women. We also have a number of programmes focused specifically on developing female leaders, and women are well represented in our general leadership programmes.
Still, we’re not going to be satisfied till we get to 50/50 — and not out of “wokeness” but simply because that will be what is fair, and what is best for our business. Back to being dry: the statistical evidence at company level tells precisely the same story as the cross-country data. When human capital is more diverse and more representative, companies are more creative, more sustainable and more profitable.
Achieving gender parity also requires attention to the practical barriers to women’s careers. This means, for example, being serious about ensuring that women face the same trade-offs between work and family as men. Women should not be expected to juggle their responsibilities any more than their male colleagues.
Gender inequality in the workplace also widens considerably after women have children. The hit that a woman has to take on her income when she decides to leave or pause her job for the sake of starting a family or looking after her children is not just temporary. The gap that opens up compounds heavily over the length of a career and results in lower pay, fewer female leaders, and higher attrition rates from the workforce entirely.
Companies and governments can tackle this by offering shared parental leave policies and enabling working parents to share childcare more equally. There may also be technological fixes: one of the few positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the ability — and acceptability — of women and men to work remotely, enabling them to spend more time at home and to have more flexibility to meet the needs of work and those of home and family.
Attention to work/home trade-offs and to the career costs of having a family are likely to reduce the gender pay gap. But it also needs direct attention. In 2021, women worldwide earned 82% of men’s earnings, and women in South Africa on average earned just 78% of men’s incomes. Even taking into account the effects of starting and raising a family, this is still an astonishing and unacceptable disparity. I therefore think that we should promote greater equity in the workplace by being more transparent about wages, and by checking for and correcting wage gaps that arise purely from gender differences.
These days, the issue of gender equality extends into the territory of gender identity. I am increasingly asked what my pronoun is. As a man of a certain age, this took some getting used to. But I now understand and accept the point. I’m a “he” — and that just feels natural and right to me. But that’s not a good argument for refusing to accept a more fluid approach. After all, keeping “women in the home” or “Africans in their place” also felt “natural and right” to a lot of people in the past century. There are a great number of people for whom gender identity is a difficult issue, and they are still fighting for their inalienable human dignity. We should support that struggle.
The dry statistical evidence on inclusion and economic development — and the stirring accounts of the heroism of people like Charlotte Maxeke or Helen Joseph — both actually teach the same lesson. Life is better — better for everyone — when we recognise everyone’s rights, uphold everyone’s dignity, and aim to ensure that everyone has a substantially equal chance to flourish.
Sim Tshabalala is chief executive of the Standard Bank Group and an honorary professor at the Stellenbosch Business School