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Sharmi Surianarain and Lerato Shai | 31 August 2023

As Women’s Month draws to a close, we reflect on the sobering picture that is female youth employment in South Africa.

Despite temporary upward trends following the pandemic, female youth employment appears to have plateaued. This is while male youth employment has grown.

According to Stats SA’s latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey for the second quarter of 2023, at least 2 million fewer women in the country were employed than men.

Yet despite these trends, young women are more tenacious than ever. When given an equal opportunity, they seize it.

Take, for example, education. In South Africa, young women consistently outperform their male counterparts academically. For every 100 men under 35 holding a matric, there are 112 women with the same qualification.

Even more impressive is that young women with degree equivalents or higher exceed young men by 50%.

Not only are younger women better educated than their male peers, but they are also more educated than their female seniors, closing in on gaps and, in many cases, surpassing men.

For the population over the age of 35, at least 5% fewer women than men hold matric, and 15% fewer women than men hold degrees. This is a generational win for women.

This educational accomplishment does not, however, translate to employment opportunities.

Despite being more educated, women remain underrepresented in the labour market across all age groups.

While the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report ranks South Africa 20th in the overall gender gap, the country performs dismally on wage equality for similar work, ranking 111th out of 146 countries.

The work of partners in the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI) demonstrates that even when faced with gender barriers that defy logic, women continue to actively look for work, no matter the odds.

Two-thirds of the SA Youth platform’s network of more than 3.6 million are young women who are actively using it to search for opportunities and build their profiles – evidence of their competence and tenacity to do what it takes to earn.

However, it’s insufficient for us to applaud the tenacity of young women. We need to design systems that actively favour them.

The Department of Basic Education’s (DBE’s) school assistant programme — a flagship programme of the Presidential Employment Stimulus — exemplifies a proactive approach to mitigating employment barriers for women, including fewer educational requirements, placement close to their homes, a relatively safe working environment and mandated equal pay.

Unsurprisingly, 70% of the programme’s participants were women.

Though temporary, these roles have proven to be a stepping stone for many women. SA Youth has enabled nearly a million work opportunities for youth — two-thirds of which go to women. This is more evidence of the competence and tenacity of young women who are ready and willing to do what it takes to work.

When we break barriers to women’s entry into male-dominated industries, women make the most of these opportunities.

Take the installation, repair and maintenance (IRM) sector in South Africa. This has witnessed a surge in demand, but is highly skewed, with only 3% of licensed plumbers, for instance, being women.

In partnership with the Institute of Plumbing South Africa, Harambee, the National Business Initiative and BluLever launched an initiative focused on gender and social inclusion funded by the UK government’s Skills for Prosperity to address this disparity.

Our targets were ambitious — 50% of the opportunities were reserved for women, and gender equity was baked into every phase of the project value chain, from the young people on the programme to employers, sector bodies and training institutions.

Employer training played a vital role in advancing this mission, as did elevating the voice of role models, and media campaigns like BluLever’s #Womenontools campaign.

Innovative policies and legislation that protect the rights of pregnant work-seekers and employees, as well as opportunities for women to catch up on missed content, may seem like an extra investment, but are well worth it in terms of return on investment, with women seizing opportunities and outperforming expectations.

Similarly, the Basic Package of Support (BPS) addresses these barriers head-on. The BPS is a programme led by a consortium of partners at the University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg and the DG Murray Trust.

Several BPS pilot sites are run under the umbrella of the PYEI. BPS reaches out to young people who are not in employment, education or training (Neet) and offers face-to-face coaching to help them solve the multiple challenges that are keeping them trapped in Neet status.

With a greater likelihood of living in income-poor households and carrying a heavier burden of care in the household, young women are especially vulnerable.

Mikayla is a 21-year-old woman from Atlantis in the Western Cape who joined the BPS in June 2022. Her primary goal was to pursue her studies, but she also felt a responsibility to financially support her grandmother.

Consequently, she initiated a job hunt and achieved success. After securing employment, her BPS coach encouraged her broader ambitions for higher education.

Mikayla applied for a foundation phase teaching course; however, she was not accepted. Undeterred, she persevered, having developed a plan B with her coach. As a result, she is now pursuing studies in human resource management.

“The BPS programme helped me a lot. It changed my line of thinking to just remain positive and believe things will come your way when the time is right. I am studying today through all the love, support and guidance I received from BPS.

“I am what I am today through the individual coaching sessions and [I] would encourage other young people to make use of the BPS programme,” says Mikayla.

The current economic landscape poses significant challenges, especially for women. However, the PYEI partnership approach — and examples such as the DBE programme, the BPS initiative and targeted sector initiatives within the IRM sector — suggests that through strategically coordinated investments, catalytic initiatives and targeted support, we can create a more gender-inclusive environment across all sectors.

This creates immense value for organisations, communities and the wider economy and, more importantly, unlocks earning pathways that transform young women’s lives.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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