The right to equality, as articulated in section 9 of the Constitution, demands equal treatment and protection of everyone by the law, and equal benefit of the law. It further proscribes unfair discrimination on any of the listed grounds, including gender and sex.  If equality is understood as universally applicable, then gender disparity as it currently stands in any society, should be unacceptable. In addition to this form of inequality being the undesirable status quo, there should be visible efforts on the part of governments, business and society at large, to close that gap. 

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index examines global gender parity and annually ranks countries based on the progress made (or lack thereof) in closing gender gaps in certain areas. These areas are: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. In 2018, South Africa was ranked 19 out of 149 countries with a score of 0.755, where 0 represents acute disparity and 1 represents full gender parity. South Africa’s ranking is relatively high (good) but when one examines the scores in the individual sub-indexes and the variables therein, it becomes clear that there is still much work to be done.

For example, in terms of economic participation and opportunity, South Africa ranked 91 out of 149 countries. The biggest problem in this category is the wage gap and here, the country ranks below the global average. Women in South Africa are still paid significantly less for similar work done – despite legislative provisions mandating equal pay. The Employment Equity Act, while not explicit regarding equal pay, proscribes unfair discrimination on numerous grounds, one of which is gender. 

Further, the Code of Good Practice on Equal Pay/Remuneration for Work of Equal Value (the Code of Good Practice) issued in terms of the Employment Equity Act, requires employers to play their part in the elimination of unfair discrimination in the workplace. One such method is the equal remuneration for similar work done. This simply means that people who do the same/similar work must be paid the same. The language of the Code of Good Practice echoes that of the equality provisions in the Constitution. It also reinforces the content of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Equal Remuneration Conventionof 1951 (to which South Africa is a signatory). The Convention is unequivocal about its requirement for State parties to implement legislation to ensure wage parity between men and women workers for work of equal value.  

In the Women, Business and The Law 2019: A Decade of Reform report, the World Bank Group states that only six countries currently afford women and men equal rights (in the measured areas). The eight indicators are: “Going Places, Starting a Job, Getting Paid, Getting Married, Having Children, Running a Business, Managing Assets and Getting a Pension”. The indicators ask questions like “Can a woman travel outside her home in the same way as a man?” and “Is there legislation on sexual harassment in employment?”. Questions like “Does the law mandate equal remuneration for work of equal value?” are also asked, even in the developed world, signifying a reluctance to afford women the same economic benefits for their labour. This reluctance is translated into the apparent slow pace of transformation in this area. To emphasise this point, the Gender Gap Indexstates that if the current gender disparity continues, it could take 135 years for men and women working in sub-Saharan Africa to be equal. 

When considering the issue of the wage gap, the history of unequal pay for women is important. It speaks to the treatment of women as second-class citizens who continue to play catch-up with their male counterparts. The failure to remunerate women for labour is rooted in the education gap, due to the historical exclusion of women from education opportunities. This exclusion has yet to be eradicated across the globe. Evidently, the wage gap issue is intersectional and is exacerbated by poverty, the absence of a human rights culture and the failure to recognise that the equal inclusion of women in fair labour practices makes economic sense. According to the McKinsey Global Institute’s The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality Can Add $12 Trillion To Global Growth report, closing the gender gap in the workforce could add $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. 

That’s American Dollars.  

Is the gender gap a human rights issue? Yes. This is because economic independence and equal pay contribute substantially to the dignity and equality of women. A wage that lends dignity is one that enables the employee to attain a standard of living that is sustainable and one that allows the full enjoyment of other human rights. Access to food, shelter and quality healthcare come to mind.

Obviously, gender parity is but one of the plethora of issues facing women daily. No country in the world has eliminated gender-based violence, least of all, South Africa, where the rate of femicide is through the roof. Safety, unemployment, reproductive autonomy and access to education are a few examples of the obstacles standing in the way of gender equality. Gender parity is everyone’s problem and it would be wise to demand engagement from all avenues. To look to states to do all the work does not absolve society of responsibility in changing the experience of women. 

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
8 March 2019