According to the Women in the Workplace research programme at the University of Johannesburg, the South African gender pay gap is estimated to be between 15% and 17%. This means that a woman would need to work two months more than a man to earn the equivalent salary to what he would earn in a year.The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) says: “It takes women 10 more years to earn a man’s pay. If we don’t close the gender wage gap, the typical 20-year-old woman starting full-time work today stands to lose R5million over a 40-year career compared to her male counterpart.

“When he retires at age 60, she would have to work 10 more years, to age 70, to make up the difference and close this lifetime wage gap.

“For black women, the lifetime wage gap over a 40-year career totals R10 million. As a result, black women would have to work to age 83 to equal the pay of their male counterparts.”

You don’t even have to be human to be valued more highly solely because you are male: a 2014 study found when a computer was named Julie, users rated its monetary value as 25% lower than an identically performing computer named James.

Women are also over-represented in low-wage jobs. They are about two-thirds of workers in jobs that typically pay less than R150 an hour, even while women are a little less than half the workforce over all. And this too is related to stereotyped perceptions of women’s worth. Gender inequality drags women down.

What’s really behind why women earn less than men? Once it was because they weren’t as well educated, but what’s holding them back now? The reasons given for this pay gap, according to the research, is that women are often seen to be less loyal to the company and more likely to exit the workplace in their childbearing years.

Employers may therefore perceive the long-term value a woman would add to an organisation as lower than that of a man who does not have the same care obligations outside of work.

“Current research continues to find evidence of a motherhood penalty for women and of a marriage premium for men,” said the NBER. It is noted that one of the more significant contributing factors to pay disparity is the fact that women are more likely to spend time away from the workforce and are more likely to work truncated schedules, as they try to balance professional and personal priorities, such as caring for children or ageing parents.

It is also pointed out that “the greater tendency of men to determine the geographic location of the family” continues to be a factor even among highly educated couples

Francine D Blau and Lawrence M Kahn, authors of a 2016 study from the NBER on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010, found that as more women attended and graduated from college and entered the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages.

Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials.

So what does explain it? The study points to – wait for it – culture, which continues to favour men’s participation in the workforce and women’s participation on the home front. To maintain these stereotypes at the expense of women is a huge injustice.

On July 21, after BBC News was forced to release to the public its salary structure, women working at the BBC spoke of the anger and frustration across all levels of the institution after the disparity in pay between the male and female top earners was revealed.

A woman reporter said: “There’s this great myth management promote about treating talent on its separate merits, but it’s all about divide and rule. Now it’s finally been exposed for what it is. A lot of privileged white men giving each other privileged pay. Even without experience.”

BBC women said staff were “pissed off” but not surprised by the figures, which showed that only a third of the organisation’s 96 top-earning talents were women and that its seven best-paid stars were all men.

South African companies still have huge gender pay gaps and media companies are no different.

The NBER research also found that progress in pay parity has been slower among women in highly skilled professions than those in professions that don’t require a college or graduate degree. The paper notes this may be because women in high-paying, demanding jobs, like doctors or lawyers, are more harshly penalised for time spent away from the office and clients. Specifically the penalties for time out of the office are high among those with MBAs.

South Africa will continue to pay the economic price for gender inequality if nothing is done to resolve this issue, says International Labour Organisation senior gender specialist Mwila Chigaga.

Oxfam reports that women are the world’s most powerful consumers controlling 65% of consumer spending. It is estimated that their incomes will increase from $13 trillion (R173trillion) to $18 trillion by 2018. If we continue to short-change women, we are stifling our economic growth and the full potential of fellow citizens, just because they are a different gender. As a country and the world, we need to move with a greater sense of urgency in addressing the gender pay gap: it’s the injustice of our time.

There is hope. Although on average, mining and other heavy industries lag behind in terms of gender pay equity, South African service industries are better attuned to the needs of women. These sectors have a high percentage of women employees.

More encouraging is that salaries in government are, on average, better for both men and women than comparable jobs in the private sector. We must double our efforts to reverse these imbalances and achieve equal pay for equal work.

Nomvula Mokonyane is Minister of Water and Sanitation and an ANC NEC member.

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