If a country was inhabited on paper, we would be a relative paradise for ambitious women hoping to make it to senior management positions or as successful entrepreneurs. Not only is our Constitution one of the most progressive in the world in promoting gender equality, but various pieces of legislation endeavour to give effect to the transformative promise of our Constitution. As a result, SA ranks sixth of 134 countries on the World Economic gender gap index.

We don’t live on paper, of course. There is no doubt that significant gains have been made in translating these paper promises into reality. In 2010, the SA Parliament boasted representation of 45% women. While we should not be satisfied with 19.5% of women in senior positions in the country, such statistics compare very favourably with the US (14,4%) and Australia (8%). Regarding senior management positions, we come in strongly above  the global average of 21% at an average of 28%.

But this is where the numbers become misleading. Of the 28%, only a very small percentage of women are in the highest   positions of decision-making, with the overwhelming majority reaching the pinnacle of their careers in the position of human resource or finance management. In this regard, we lag behind the rest of the world. What does such a discrepancy tell us? Without a doubt, we should be very careful when relying on numbers to measure women’s empowerment. Rwanda is one of the top countries worldwide in female parliamentary representation-but actual participation of these women leaves much to be desired.

It should not be news to us that there is a gap between the paper ideals of legislation and policies and lived realities of women. What we should interrogate is what these discrepancies hide-because that is where real change lurks. Between the 28% female senior managers and the only 7% women CEO’s lie at least the following realities:

  1. Women are stereotyped as having personality traits suitable to certain management positions or roles only.
  2. Until very recently, women were not expected to be seen in senior positions, but at home nursing children exclusively. Such cultural perceptions do not change overnight.
  3. Women who choose to be mothers invariably face the difficulties of trying to juggle an unfriendly work environment with the expectations of motherhood.

Neglecting cultural and social change in favour of top down legislative and policy changes will probably never enable women to achieve what our Constitution envisages.

The real danger of relying on the transformation of legislation rather than social   and cultural realities is that it creates an even greater gap between those women able to benefit from legislative change and those who cannot. The rural women of the former homelands remain one of the poorest groups in the country. They are as entitled to the benefits of the gender transformation of the Constitution as urban professionals.

The Constitution can only reach them through bottom up transformation. Evidence suggests that these women are making such transformation happen.

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