• Jul 12 2017

Empowering women in a digital age in South Africa

For women to be truly empowered, policies must tackle socio-cultural attitudes, negative perceptions, as well as other determining factors such as inequality in access to health services, violence against women, and lack of political representation.

 South Africa, income inequalities, developing economy, policies, private sector, access to information, ICT, digital participation, digital age
Steve Evans/CC BY-NC 2.0

South Africa continues to grapple with wide income inequalities. It possesses characteristics of both an advanced and a developing economy. While it has sophisticated institutions, progressive policies, and a strong private sector, it lags on indicators for access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital participation. A study by the National Assessments and Benchmarking of Gender, Science, Technology and Innovation Centre ranked women in South Africa high in agency, social status, science, technology and innovation participation, and knowledge society decision-making. This was attributed to the existence of a strong education system, a policy focus on STI (Science Technology and Innovation), and importantly, existence of a quota system implemented in various identified sectors for the promotion of a gender-and-race-inclusive workforce. At the same time, the country was ranked lower in access to resources and lowest in health due to its slow progress against HIV (Elan, 2012).

Today, the concept of 'digital divide' extends beyond the simple division between the information 'haves' and 'have-nots'. The focus is now moving from material access to the skills and opportunities that are prerequisite for the effective use of ICTs and financial products for overall empowerment. In this context, the paper explores the challenges and opportunities for women's empowerment in South Africa in a digital age, with a focus on issues of access, labour market participation, and financial inclusion.

Poverty, prejudice, and infrastructure — Digital inclusion

What is colloquially referred to as the 'digital gender divide' is less pronounced in South Africa, in comparison to other emerging economies. According to recent figures by the Internet World Stats, out of a population of 54,978,907, South Africa had 28,580,290 internet users in 2016. The figures suggest that internet penetration in the country increased from 5.5% in 2000 to 52% in 2016 (Internet World Stats 2017). Further, as per the 2014 Effective Measure Demographic Report, South African internet users were typically aged between 20 and 50, with an almost even number of male and female users.

According to the report, 51% of Internet users in the country were female (mybroadband 2014). At the same time, despite progressive steps by the government, women — particularly women of colour — are often left behind in higher education and advanced skills indicators. Recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that only 50.9% of the female population aged 25–54 is employed in South Africa. This is extremely low compared to the OECD average of 67.4% (BusinessTech 2016).

Poverty is the main impediment to digital inclusion and participation in South Africa. While race has historically been a driver of economic disparities, traditional socio-cultural prejudice has been a barrier to women's labour market, financial, and digital inclusion. According to an OECD estimate, the incidence of poverty is extremely high for African women at 52% (OECD 2012). This in-turn impacts access to higher education and financial services. Within the multi-ethnic and multilingual context of South Africa, four main barriers restricting women's digital access and inclusion in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) sectors have been identified: gender stereotyping and societal attitudes; family responsibilities; working time constraints; and a lack of confidence in completing tasks (Li and Wilson, 2001). A study by Moletsane and Reddy (2008) reveals that careers within the STEM sector are still perceived to be masculine, and women in these male-dominated fields are typically treated as 'intruders' and face implicit and explicit discrimination (Moletsane and Reddy, 2008). Given South Africa's unemployment rate and skills-shortage, this is counter-productive from both, an economic as well as a rights perspective.

Poverty is the main impediment to digital inclusion and participation in South Africa. While race has historically been a driver of economic disparities, traditional socio-cultural prejudice has been a barrier to women's labour market, financial, and digital inclusion.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa revealed that in 2015, women of colour represented only about 18% of the research and institutional workforce, despite them being the largest demographic group in South Africa (Wild 2015). While there is a long way to go for women’s equal representation in academic leadership, some efforts have yielded positive results. To change the existing trajectory of women’s underrepresentation in STEM research, NRF — which is the main research funding body in South Africa — has made deliberate efforts to financially support female postgraduate students in science. Their numbers reveal that since 2002, more than 18,000 women have obtained their postgraduate degrees in STI through NRF funding with the support of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology (Wild, 2015). In an interview, NRF's Dr. Thandi Mgwebi identified female academics' lack of awareness of promotion policies, less external visibility, and less lifelong support for continuing their careers as the reason behind the dearth of female academics. Polices for lifelong skills-development, maternity benefits, and support in re-entering the workforce are necessary to remedy the situation. In addition, the country's Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, advocated affirmative action for course correction — establishing that 71% of the students funded in 2016-2017 would be coloured and 55% would be female (Wild, 2015).

At present, Accenture's Getting to Equal survey on digital fluency, ranked South Africa at a low 21 out of 31 countries (Accenture, 2017). However, since both women and men have extremely low digital fluency rates, only a small gender gap in digital fluency exists. The study establishes the premise that digital skills accelerate women's advancement in the workplace. In this context, South African women's employment and education outcomes are also rated extremely low in the study due to the lack of advanced digital skills (Accenture, 2017).

South Africa, ICT, digital participation, agency, social status, science, technology, innovation, participation, digital age
Photo: Ryan Brown/UN Women

At the same time, a study on gender differences in technology acceptance in selected South African companies revealed surprising results — as opposed to reporting 'techno-phobia', women from the sample used in the study were more enthusiastic and accepting of the use of new technology based devices in comparison to their male counterparts (Accenture 2017). This underlines the potential of e-learning opportunities as a tool for skilling given sustained support and mentorship. With a relatively well-established ICT infrastructure, e-learning is gradually being accepted in skills-training programmes in South Africa, however, it remains under-utilised due to factors such as organisation and individual rigidity to technology and ad hoc short-term strategies.

Labour market inclusion

Since its independence, South Africa has made notable progress towards gender and racial equality. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index 2016 ranked South Africa 15th out of 144 countries (World Economic Forum, 2016). Yet, as mentioned above, a high rate of women's unemployment persists. The main factors behind this have been identified as economic stagnation during the apartheid years, persistent gender-and-race-based discrimination, patriarchal norms restricting women to care-work, as well as the global financial crisis of 2008 (Hills, 2015).

As per an OECD estimate, the unemployment rates are higher for women than for men at all ages, but are particularly alarming for the ages between 15-24 years (OECD 2012). According to a 2011 report on the status of women in South Africa, the perception that women should be responsible for the care-economy and supporting roles such as fetching water, is still prevalent in the country (International Women's Forum, 2011). Consequently, a disproportionate percentage of women is restricted within the domestic and farming sectors.

As per an OECD estimate, the unemployment rates are higher for women than for men at all ages, but are particularly alarming for the ages between 15-24 years.

According to ONE's 2015 report on the status of women and girls in Africa, on average, women in the country earn 42% less than men (ONE 2015). Further, the report reveals that while women are, "responsible for up to 80% of food production, 60% of the harvesting, 80% of food storage and transport from fields to villages, 100% of the processing of basic foodstuffs, and 60% of marketing activities across the country" — less than 1% possess land (ONE, 2015). Consequently, women face an automatic disadvantage in securing credit due to lack of collaterals, and limited experience in banking procedures. Of the agricultural extension services and credit offered to small-scale farmers, women receive only 7% and 10% respectively (ONE, 2015). In terms of policies, South Africa already has many gender-sensitive policies on paper. For instance, for programmes such as the Land Redistribution Programme, the Land Tenure Programme, and the Land Restitution Programme, there is no data on the monitoring and evaluation of these programmes which makes it hard to assess concrete outcomes (ONE, 2015).

Globally, the slow progress towards women's economic empowerment is often attributed to the lack of funding and dearth of gender disaggregated data. Although South Africa has one of the most transparent budgets in the world — there is no deliberate gender responsive budgeting procedure. Further, it is unclear whether the budget allocated to the Department of women is based on evaluation of past programmes and gender disaggregated data (South African Government, 2015). In addition, while South Africa's spending on education is significantly higher than that of other emerging economies, the budget again, is gender-neutral and does not set special targets for women's and girls' education and skilling.

Although South Africa has one of the most transparent budgets in the world — there is no deliberate gender responsive budgeting procedure.

Financial inclusion

According to a study based on South Africa's Finscope Surveys, there was an overall increase in the number of bank account holders from below 50% in 1994 to approximately 80% by 2013 (Nanziri, 2016). Notably, unlike in many other countries, women in South Africa were found to be not disproportionately excluded from formal financial services. According to a 2016 paper by the Finmark Trust, South Africa is the only country in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in which women are more financially included than men (Finmark Trust, 2016a). The paper suggests that with a positive gender gap of 6%, more South African women than men are financially included. The reason behind this is most likely that more women are social grant recipients than men — 42% of women over the age of 18 compared to just 13% of men receive grants.
At the same time, men have the edge in bank account usage as 30% men use their accounts at least three times a month for withdrawals or deposits as compared to women, where only 26% of women use their accounts with the same frequency. This demonstrates that more women have dormant accounts. Additionally, despite having access to more accounts, women still have less access to bank credit than men. Data however revealed that more women access credit through informal institutions.

Another visible gender gap exists in access to savings. The study found that more women than men are excluded from the saving market, even upon considering informal saving channels. The lack of digital literacy is a contributing factor for women's limited engagement with financial products, and particularly, savings products. World Bank's World Business Enterprise Survey revealed that in 2007, only 240 women owned enterprises in South Africa, compared to 805 male entrepreneurs (Nanziri, 2016). Further, the Finscope Business Survey of 2010 indicated that women tended to be restricted in micro-enterprises and their primary source of capital was personal savings or support from friends and family. Self-employment and entrepreneurship have the potential to rectify the existing gender gaps in labor market inclusion, particularly for rural women and marginalised; however, for women enterprises to thrive — financial literacy is a pre-requisite. The data proves that financial inclusion, much like digital inclusion, should not be perceived solely in terms of access or simply as a matter of being 'banked' or 'unbanked'. As the study shows, despite more women being owners of bank accounts, external factors restrict usage and savings patterns.

More women than men are excluded from the saving market, even upon considering informal saving channels.

Finally, the role of mobile money in the country merits further examination. Research on mobile money in the SADC region highlights that since there is just a 2% gender gap in mobile money account ownership in South Africa, the mobile money revolution has the potential to close the gender gaps in usage and savings. At the same time, the study re-affirms that due to limited mobile phone penetration and lower financial literacy amongst women, low income groups and rural population, the mobile money revolution may face a serious setback and could further widen the gap between those financially included and those excluded (Finmark Trust, 2016b).

Best practices

South Africa is witnessing a wave of women-led, non-government-and-private-sector initiatives that aim to close the gender gap in tech. For instance, Code4CT is an organisation that runs 18 month programmes to introduce high school girls to coding, design and the tech industry (Strydom, 2016). Similarly, GirlHype, another organisation, offers free 7-week programmes for 10th-12th-grade girls to learn coding and get exposure to tech jobs (GirlHype, 2017). In addition, GirlCode is a non-profit organisation aiming to fix the skewed gender ratio in the tech industry by organising hackathons and facilitating women's skills advancement (GirlCode, 2017). However, despite sharing a common mandate and inspired vision, the geographical scale of these interventions has remained relatively small and separate from each other.

financial illiteracy, employment, quality of life, race, gender, income, access, women of colour, digital age, South Africa
Photo: Beyond Access/CC BY-SA 2.0

In addition to equipping women with coding skills, websites like 'Tech Girl', are working to fill the information gap by creating an online space for South African women to ask questions and get comfortable with technology (Bradford, 2014). In addition, a collaboration between UN Women and the Mozilla Foundation ran a programme in Cape Town to increase women's web literacy with the aim to improve employment opportunities by familiarising them with hardware and functions of the internet. While the pilot project yielded success stories, it is unclear whether it is being scaled up (BBC News, 2017).

Government funded research institutions and universities in South Africa are obligated to reserve a portion of student and faculty seats for women, and particularly for women of colour. This has resulted in relatively improved representation in the STEM academia in recent years. However, due to the lack of publicly available documentation, it is unclear whether women’s participation has exceeded the stipulated quota in most cases (Wild, 2015).

Government funded research institutions and universities in South Africa are obligated to reserve a portion of student and faculty seats for women, and particularly for women of colour.

E-learning and mobile-learning are becoming popular in South Africa. In this case, if facilitated by trained teachers through a multilingual approach, technology itself becomes a tool for empowerment and digital skills-building. The country's experience with mobile learning and teaching demonstrates that teachers, context, culture and language are crucial to the development (content creation and dissemination) and use of technology as a tool in education (Jantjies and Joy, 2016). A successful example of promoting women's entrepreneurship is showcased by the Women's Enterprise Development Initiative (WEDI), a South African private cooperation that aims to drive development by investing in women entrepreneurs. Since 2008, WEDI has provided technical assistance and sizeable investments to develop new funding models that facilitate job creation (Women’s Enterprise Development Initiative, 2008).

Poor rural women in South Africa have been utilising a range of traditional technologies in both productive and reproductive activities that are important to their livelihood. Research in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province shows that the advent of externally-produced new technologies creates tensions with local indigenous technologies. However, this research is also groundbreaking as it can provide pathways to innovative models of technology that an integrate the local with the global (Bob, 2004).

Policy pathways

The digital economy will not be separate from the existing economy and the prevalent perceptions regarding women and work. Therefore, for women to be truly empowered in the digital age, policies must tackle socio-cultural attitudes, negative perceptions, as well as other determining factors such as inequality in access to health services, violence against women, and lack of political representation.

  • In the context of South Africa, digital and financial inclusion cannot be understood solely in terms of access. The digital skills-gap and financial illiteracy determine women's levels of engagement which in-turn impacts their education and employment opportunities as well as overall quality of life.
  • Race, gender and income are the three are key factors in determining access — in addition to age and location. Therefore, to combat gender gaps in labor market participation and education attainment, South Africa's historical discrimination problem must be addressed.
  • Women do not make a homogenous group. As data reveals, special measures are required to safeguard the rights and improve the lives of women of colour and of rural women in particular.
  • Policy discourse must refrain from 'technological determinism'. Technology by itself cannot be empowering. The digital economy will not be isolated from existing social-cultural perception of women and work as well as existing gaps. Violence against women and unequal access to healthcare remain major concerns, and could cancel out the benefits accrued by the digital economy. It is important that communities of gender advocates and technology advocates interact with each other for devising holistic measures.
  • Digital fluency will determine employment outcomes in the digital age. Digital-skills building programmes must focus on young girls to start their integration in STEM early.
  • In addition to existing affirmative action in universities and research institutions, polices for lifelong skills-development, maternity benefits, and support for re-entering the workforce are necessary to improve women’s representation in academia as well as other sectors. Further, quota mechanisms in institutions must be audited.
  • South Africa has several progressive, gender sensitive policies in place. However, greater focus needs to be given to monitoring and evaluation to assess and amplify their impact.
  • At present, there is a serious lack of gender-disaggregated data, which in turn impacts effective monitoring and evaluation. In addition, moving forward, it is important to adopt gender responsive budgeting to ensure maximum benefit from allocated funds.
  • Bank account ownership alone is insufficient to measure financial inclusion. Data reveals that women are disadvantaged due to lower levels of financial literacy. There is a need for effective financial literacy programmes, and to improve women's access to financial and savings products.
  • Successful private-sector led pilot-projects must be given the support to scale-up.
  • Rural women have locally created indigenous skills that are interlinked with their livelihood strategies. The aim of new technologies can be to complement these to improve lives, as opposed to dismantling traditional socio-economic systems.

References

Susan Elan, “Study: Women encounter inequality in science & technology fields,” Elsevier, 1 October. https://www.elsevier.com/connect/study-women-encounter-inequality-in-science-and-technology-fields

‘South Africa,’ Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics,” 2016. http://www.internetworldstats.com/af/za.htm

Staff Writer, “South Africa Online: gender, race and income,” My Broadband, 12 May 2014. https://mybroadband.co.za/news/internet/100792-south-africa-online-gender-race-and-income.html?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

Staff Writer, “This graphic shows the shocking state of employment in South Africa,” BusinessTech, 27 January 2016. https://businesstech.co.za/news/business/109959/this-graphic-shows-the-shocking-state-of-employment-in-south-africa/

“Country Profile: South Africa, ”Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD, 17 December 2012, https://www.oecd.org/southafrica/Closing%20the%20Gender%20Gap%20-%20South%20Africa%20EN.pdf

Jonathan Liu, & Doirean Wilson,  “Developing women in a digital world,” Women in Management Review, 16(8), 2001.

Moletsane, R., & Reddy, V, An assessment of the participation of women in set industry for Department of Science and Technology, 2008. http://www.hsrc.ac.za/research/output/outputDocuments/5505_Moletsane_Assessmentoftheparticipationofwomen.pdf

Sarah Wild, “Gender Barriers Limiting Innovation in Science & Technology Fields,” EWN: Eyewitness News, 2015. http://ewn.co.za/2015/10/27/Gender-barriers-limiting-innovation-in-science-and-technology-fields

Sarah Wild, “Gender Barriers Limiting Innovation in Science & Technology Fields,” EWN: Eyewitness News, 2015. http://ewn.co.za/2015/10/27/Gender-barriers-limiting-innovation-in-science-and-technology-fields

“Digital Fluency Can Help Close the Gender Gap Faster in South Africa,”Accenture. https://www.accenture.com/za-en/company-digital-fluency-close-gender-gap-south-africa

Rankings, Global Gender Gap Index 2016, World Economic Forum. http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/rankings/

Janine Hills, “Addressing Gender Quotas in South Africa: Women Employment and Gender Equality Legislation,” Deakin Law Review, Volume 20, No.1. https://ojs.deakin.edu.au/index.php/dlr/article/viewFile/498/500

“Country Profile: South Africa, ”Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now, OECD, 17 December 2012, https://www.oecd.org/southafrica/Closing%20the%20Gender%20Gap%20-%20South%20Africa%20EN.pdf

The Status of Women in South Africa,” International Women’s Forum & Frontier Advisory, South Africa, October 2011

“2015 South Africa Women’s Month Status Report on Women and Girls,” ONE, South Africa, 2015.  https://s3.amazonaws.com/one.org/pdfs/Status-of-women-and-girls-in-South-Africa-2015.pdf

Minister Susan Shabangu: Media briefing on Department of Women Budget Vote, South African Government, 13 May 2015, http://www.gov.za/speeches/budget-vote-media-briefing-minister-women-ms-susan-shabangu-13-may-2015-0000

Elizabeth Lwanga Nanziri, “Financial Inclusion and Welfare in South Africa: Is there a Gender Gap?” Journal of African Development 2016, 18(2). http://www.jadafea.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/08_Nanzirl_rev3.pdf

“Gender and financial inclusion Analysis of financial inclusion of women in the SADC region,” Policy research paper No. 01/2016, FinMark Trust, Augut, 2016. http://www.finmark.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/gender-and-financial-inclusion.pdf

Elizabeth Lwanga Nanziri, “Financial Inclusion and Welfare in South Africa: Is there a Gender Gap?” Journal of African Development 2016, 18(2). http://www.jadafea.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/08_Nanzirl_rev3.pdf

“The role of mobile money in financial inclusion in the SADC region Evidence using FinScope Surveys,” Policy research paper No. 03/2016, FinMark Trust, December, 2016. http://www.finmark.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/mobile-money-and-financial-inclusion-in-sadc.pdf

Jeanette Strydom , “Who runs the world? Girls!”, Code for South Africa, 15 March 2016. http://code4sa.org/2016/03/15/who-runs-the-world-girls.html

GirlHype Website: http://girlhype.co.za/index.php/about-us/

GirlCode Website: http://girlcodeza.co.za/our-story/

Laurence Bradford, “A Tech Blog That Connects Africa Women,” Learn to Code with Me, 6 August, 2014. http://learntocodewith.me/women/sam-wright/

“The township women learning tech,” Africa, 15 March 2017, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-39273651/the-township-women-learning-tech

Sarah Wild, “Gender Barriers Limiting Innovation in Science & Technology Fields,” EWN: Eyewitness News, 2015. http://ewn.co.za/2015/10/27/Gender-barriers-limiting-innovation-in-science-and-technology-fields

Mmaki Jantjies & Mike Joy, “Lessons learnt from teachers’ perspectives on mobile learning in South Africa with cultural and linguistic constraints,” South African Journal of Education, Volume 36, Number 3, August 2016. http://www.scielo.org.za/pdf/saje/v36n3/01.pdf

Women’s Enterprise Development Initiative (WEDI), Background:  http://pmg-assets.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/docs/101123wedi_0.pdf

Urmilla Bob, "Rural Women and Technology in South Africa: Case Studies from KwaZulu-Natal Province," GeoJournal 61, no. 3 (2004): 291-300. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41147944. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41147944?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents


This essay originally appeared as a part of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy's Women20 Study, The Effects of Digitalization on Gender Equality in the G20 Economies.

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