Corporate SA still treats women unfairly

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Women are still being treated unfairly at work and at home, even though the topic should have reached maturity by now. And the underlying issue of power is the main driving force behind structural inequality, says Anita Bosch, professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and editor of the 2017 SABPP report Fairness in Relation to Women at Work published today (1 August).

“Women are eager to work and have as much aspiration as men to advance at work. It therefore seems strange that organisations are so stubborn to adapt in order to recognise the patterns of unequal power relations and to acknowledge the societal impediments that women face.”

“Once organisations take the realities of women seriously women and men will be able to participate differently at work bringing their full selves and talents to bear. When employees make it known that they feel that they are being treated unfairly, it takes a thoughtful manager to stop and listen for often in the perceived whine, is a little piece of truth, uncomfortable as it may be.”

She says fairness is a rather vague and debatable concept which is often swept under the carpet as a non-issue.

“The perception of fairness depends on the delicate interplay of socialised norms, cultural values, psychological predisposition and religious convictions. This interplay is couched in power relations, a power that presents itself as subtle and covert. They manifest in inequitable practices that are passed off as ‘the reality’ or ‘the way things work’.” 

“Women are caught up in this power play as they cannot always articulate a different way of being and acting. The way their choices are presented to them seem fixed and unchangeable. A woman may therefore be stuck in merely voicing her dissatisfaction or bearing it. As a result the status quo remains as the power-behaviour is either not conscious, or altering the balance may result in perceived loss of power to those people or institutions that are manifesting the behaviour.”

Prof Bosch says socialised norms are greatly influenced by repeated behaviour that reinforces the expectations of the particular society or group to which one belongs. And she believes that the sosialisation of girls to be good mothers and wives, which in general is laudable, is probably the most influential, and is in direct conflict with workplace requirements.

“The main responsibility for parenting is more often than not placed at the feet of women. South African studies have asserted that it is an accepted norm that men will be both present and absent at home. Their absence, which is reinforced by paternalism, results in an uneven distribution of care-responsibilities.

“The good mother norm, which is measured by devotion to and high amounts of time spent on the needs of children as well as the running a well-functioning household, constricts women. Outsourcing childcare allegedly makes one a bad mother and the dutifulness and devotion to a husband’s needs including boosting his status, is presented as a woman’s main focus. Even women that do not have children and single women feel the pressure to conform to these norms.

“A woman, with or without children, is therefore measured as either a good mother/wife or an ideal worker — seldom both.”

She says in addition workers are spending more and more time at work and in a demanding competitive culture, overwork has become virtuous.

“Whilst organisations may reap the financial benefits from allowing overwork cultures, employees are often caught on a treadmill of ever increasing demands that eventually consume their lives. As women carry the burden of unequal distribution of home and child care, keeping up with the overwork culture becomes exhausting and may eventually lead to the option to opt out of paid work altogether. The argument that they willingly choose to leave is therefore a half-truth – they are often forced out.

“Since women do not want to fragment their families by relying on parents and other family members to assist in shouldering the responsibility of care and nurture for their children, they may stop pursing their careers with vigour. These ‘choices’ are hard ones to make and leave women feeling disillusioned and weak. To add insult to injury the inequality between men and women with similar credentials, education and abilities is attributed to a lack of talent, effort or desire on the part of women.”

Prof Bosch recommends the following steps on shifting societal norms that penetrate workplace logic:

  • Organisations should re-examine workplace structures, recruitment, selection, performance management and promotion to ensure it excludes any form of bias
  • Women should be coached on how to negotiate improved sharing of house and child care with their partners
  • Women should continue to voice their concerns about fairness, and should perhaps be invited to be brave and openly discuss their experiences with their managers
  • Managers in turn should understand the full life context of their employees and be realistic about performance targets and workplace outputs
  • Places of work may need to be located in areas with low levels of traffic congestion, and community and working from home should be carefully monitored to uncover overwork and eliminate psychological distress
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