South African Women Gain on Men in Post-Apartheid Job Market

(Bloomberg) -- South African women have benefited more than men from changes in the labor market and education opportunities since the end of apartheid, according to a study published by the United Nations University.

The changes reflect the unraveling of the racist societal structure put in place during decades of institutional segregation that began in 1948 and limited the ability of women to travel to and live in cities. They also demonstrate the positive impact of minimum wages and affirmative-action laws that promote both racial and gender diversity in the workplace, Jacqueline Mosomi, a researcher at the University of Cape Town, said in the study.

While in 1993, a year before the end of apartheid, women in low-paying jobs such as domestic work or unskilled farm labor were paid 21 percent less than men in equivalent positions, the wage gap narrowed to 7 percent in 2014, she said. Across the workforce, the proportion of women with tertiary education doubled to 20 percent in 2015 from 10 percent in 1993, compared with a more modest rise to 15 percent from 11 percent for men.

“The post-apartheid government has been successful in improving the human-capital characteristics of women,” Mosomi said. “This has led to an increasing number of women in high-skilled occupations.”

Patriarchy, Apartheid

During apartheid, most black women were effectively locked out of employment in cities by a law that required black citizens to have accommodation before they could enter urban areas. While there were single-sex dormitories for men, there were none for women, Mosomi said. That restricted many women to working on farms in rural areas or in domestic occupations close to where they lived. Many men, by contrast, traveled to live and work in cities and in mines.

This resulted in a societal model of a male breadwinner whose earnings were assumed to be shared among family members. In reality, this didn’t always happen and some rural women were trapped in severe poverty as “patriarchal heads sought to monopolize resources.”

“The mix of patriarchy and apartheid, and their effect on the status of women in the labor market, makes South Africa an important case study for understanding the evolution of the gender wage gap,” Mosomi said. “The demise of apartheid and the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation since 1994 provides an unnatural experiment with which to carry out the analysis.”

The participation of African women in the workforce jumped to 49 percent in 2015 from 36 percent in 1993 and the pay gap has narrowed as an “unintended” result of minimum-wage legislation in a number of sectors dominated by female workers.

Minimum wages were put in place for contract cleaners in 1999 and extended to domestic workers in 2002. A year later, a minimum wage for agricultural workers was stipulated. Still, the gender pay gap in higher-paid jobs is wider than at the lowest-paid level of employment.

“The first decade after apartheid saw significant changes in employment and labor force participation,” Mosomi said. “These changes, combined with the closure of the gender gap in education, imply the narrowing of the gender wage gap.”

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