Maverick Citizen


The ‘she-cession’: Covid-19 economy KO’s women in South Africa

(Photo by Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

The average gender wage gap – the difference between what men and women earn – grew by 46% through the lockdown, researchers find

The NIDS-CRAM survey out this week reveals how the fallout of the pandemic recession has impacted women’s employment, household income and wellbeing. The pattern is global where the term “she-cesssion” is used to describe the toll taken on women by economies where growth has fallen to war-time-like lows and where recessions impact women acutely. 

It’s no different in South Africa as two surveys out this week show. 

“Of the estimated three million fewer people employed in April relative to February 2020, two million were women,” write Robert Hill and Tim Köhler in the NIDS-CRAM survey.  South Africa, with a population of nearly 60 million people, has almost equal numbers of men and women; and with the various policy levers used to bring women into the world of work in the democratic era, they have entered the labour market. But these gains could now be whittled away. 

The survey reveals that, like in many countries around the world, women had to scale down their working hours to take care of children as schools and ECD centres shuttered up, largely in working-class and poorer communities. This caused a drop in earnings and expanded the gender wage gap – the measure of divisions in pay scales. 

“Women earned approximately 29% less than men per hour in February 2020, which expanded to approximately 43% less in June 2020,” according to Hill and Köhler. 

The first wave of the study found that job losses in the formal and informal sectors had impacted women-headed households most, and that levels of hunger and “shielding” (where adults in a home went without food to ensure children ate first) were more. The most common household and family structure in South Africa is the single-woman-headed household, further deepening the she-recession.  

The NIDS-CRAM research showed that as the lockdown was slowly loosened and the economy opened, the wage gap increased: “The average man’s real monthly wage increased from R9 500 to R10 600/month while that of the average woman increased from R5 600 to R6 100.  Similar patterns exist once we account for working hours.” 

They add that: “The unconditional gender wage gap widened most amongst poorer earners and remained particularly large amongst white individuals, those living in urban areas and those with a tertiary qualification.” 

This is likely because women had to undertake the additional responsibilities of childcare as the lockdown quarantined families. 

But ultimately, this is a story of black, African women who have again taken the brunt of an economic crisis. 

“The widening of the size of the conditional gender wage gap amongst poorer earners is of particular concern for policymakers, given that this result speaks to deepening inequality amongst an already vulnerable group,” the researchers conclude. 

The policy challenge now is to increase income into these women’s households and this is likely to pose a challenge to the Treasury. The social relief of distress grant of R350 a month has been well-targeted into the poorest households, but it disproportionately benefits men – and, in any event, is set to end at the end of October together with the top-ups to the other grants. DM


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