Improving women’s lot in Africa will also improve its GDP

by FariedaNovember 28, 2019

Correcting gender imbalances and improving rights for women is now an economic imperative, write Lohini Moodley, Tania Holt and Acha Leke

SA is one of the continent’s leaders when it comes to furthering the rights of women. It has raised the share of women serving on company boards and increased the number of women in middle management. In politics, its cabinet is one of just three in Africa that is gender balanced. And SA is also one of only three countries on the continent that has enshrined equal rights for women into law.

However, there is still a very long way to go as recent protests against unacceptably high levels of violence against women in the country have starkly illustrated. Although SA has laws that protect women from violent assault, enforcement is clearly inadequate and the number of attacks remains extremely high. Despite the presence of laws against rape, for instance, only 8% of rapes reported in 2012 ended in convictions.

Aside from the humanitarian cost of this, there is an economic imperative too in correcting gender imbalances and improving rights for women.

New research from the McKinsey Global Institute and McKinsey & Company in Africa finds that if every country were to match the progress towards gender equality of the African country that has progressed the fastest over the past five years, Africa could add $316bn to GDP by 2025, or 10% of current GDP. This is a prize worth having. And in a country where real per capita GDP has been declining since 1965, according to the World Bank, any potential for boosting growth should be seized.

But to achieve this, SA will have to change gears on progress towards gender parity. The McKinsey research recommends systematic and concerted action from governments, businesses, and community leaders in six priority areas.

First, SA needs to increase its investment in girls’ education and women’s skills, as well as essential services such as healthcare — good health underlies productivity and work.

Second, it needs to create more opportunities for women in both the informal and formal sectors. This includes integrating women-owned businesses into supply chains and ensuring workplaces are environments where women can thrive and develop. Africa has higher female participation in labour markets than any world region, but this reflects economic necessity rather than opportunity.

The average African woman has few prospects for high-quality work and reasonable pay. The vast majority of African women work in the informal sector — nearly 90% of women compared with about 83% of men — and often in low-paid, even subsistence, jobs. SA is somewhat ahead of its neighbours here. Less than 30% of GDP comes from the informal sector, compared with more than 60% in Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.

SA also leads the region when it comes to increasing women’s representation in middle-management and senior management roles. In the past four years, it has grown female representation in middle-management by 15%.

The internet of men

Third, SA and its neighbours need to ensure that women have the same access as men to digital and mobile technologies that not only open doors to economic opportunity but also make it easier to deliver key public services. Today, only one woman in three in Sub-Saharan Africa has access to the mobile internet, compared with one of every two men.

Fourth, SA and others need to tackle deep-rooted attitudes towards women’s role in society and work that underlie so many aspects of gender inequality. And finally, it needs to ensure that SA women have the full support and protection of the law.

SA has already come a long way on its journey towards gender equality, but more needs to be done. As one of the continent’s leading economies it has the economic clout, size, and influence to drive Africa’s challenge to empower women and re-invigorate economic growth and, in so doing, pave the way for more women to experience rising incomes and job satisfaction, healthier and more balanced lives, and boost the economic prospects of the entire continent.


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