The conundrum of women empowerment in SA
DAILY MAVERICK / 25 AUGUST 2020 - 16.55 / SASHA PLANTING
As we mark one year since the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, it is worth reflecting on just what it is about our society that holds back women, and in particular women entrepreneurs.
South Africa is one of the few countries with a government ministry dedicated to advancing the cause of women and children. It also has hundreds of civil society organisations dedicated to women empowerment.
Yet, many women remain marginalised and outside of the economic mainstream of the South African economy.
Is our society structurally holding women back?
According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, men have higher entrepreneurial activity, with 13% of South African men involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to just 9% of women.
Supporting this is research from the International Labour Organisation, which reports that just 21.5% of business owners in South Africa are female.
The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which invests in the education and development of individuals with entrepreneurial potential, conducted a study recently to understand the gender gap in entrepreneurship and find out what is limiting female entrepreneurship and empowerment.
The results were possibly not surprising. More than 80% of the female respondents agreed that views held by society on the traditional roles of women have a negative impact on entrepreneurial endeavours.
In particular, the respondents cited six barriers to female entrepreneurship.
These include not being taken seriously because they are female, low self-confidence and fear of failure, a lack of skills and knowledge, a lack of time, given domestic responsibilities coupled with a lack of support from one’s family and partner, far weaker networks than those of their male counterparts, and gender discrimination by financial markets.
Men, on the other hand, do not suffer from many of these barriers, says Dr Nontobeko Mabizela, director at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. When asked the same questions, men listed time constraints and funding as important barriers to entrepreneurship.
How one turns the tide on this was the subject of discussion at a recent Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Women in Entrepreneurship roundtable discussion.
Education is vital, according to Timothy Maurice Webster, the only man on the panel and an author and consultant on the topic of brain potential, behavioural science and brand influence. He is not just talking about any education, however.
All people, but in this example men in particular, need to understand the “sameness effect”, he says, where fitting in feels far more comfortable than bucking convention.
“Ask any South African man whether they believe in gender equality and they will answer in all sincerity that they do. But in complex times these same people will navigate back to their old clique. It’s a survival technique – who do I know who has my back?” he says.
This instinct is so powerful that people’s “revealed preferences” will often be at odds with their stated preferences – even when the stated preference is morally correct.
“What does that mean for women in a country where the vast majority of decision-makers are men?” he asks.
The implied answer is not positive. However, he suggests that educating people about their instinctive biases could make them more conscious of these biases.
“I have lived and worked in South Africa for over a decade and I can tell you that there are good people out there who, once they are aware, will check themselves.”
Rehema Isa is a self-confessed adrenaline junkie – she has founded more than a handful of businesses, which requires enormous courage. Some of these have failed, she says, while others flew.
While she knows her way around the entrepreneurial space, in South Africa in particular, it is not for sissies.
Enterprise development, which is built into South Africa’s BBBEE codes, should be a golden opportunity for black, female entrepreneurs.
“Yet, in this environment, we are seeing an increasingly protectionist agenda where only a few can participate.”
Small suppliers, she says, are becoming overly dependent on one client and the system does not encourage innovation.
“For example, there are women farmers who are not allowed to produce or sell outside of their offtake agreements. While the large company is trying to protect its supply chain, this should not come at the cost of small suppliers’ innovation and creativity,” she says.
Her solution is to encourage women entrepreneurs to look beyond South Africa’s borders into the wider continent where barriers may not be as entrenched and economies are growing faster.
Of course, South Africa is not unique when it comes to gender imbalance – the same trends are visible in many other countries, both in the West and East.
Notable exceptions include the Netherlands and Switzerland, says Alison Collier, MD of Endeavour SA, an NPO that specialises in fostering entrepreneurship in emerging markets.
“In these countries, the barriers are lower. The expectation is that teams will be 50/50 and as a woman, you are heard and listened to. That is not the same here.
“In South Africa, women require a huge amount of additional support if they are to access the same opportunities that males can access.”
Reflecting on the results of its research, Mabizela says that Allan Gray Orbis can support its female entrepreneurs by providing advice on how to navigate female-specific barriers to entrepreneurship while providing women with mentorship and opportunities to create strong, effective networks.
Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER