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Sex, Gender and the Race to the Top: On the national quest for a woman president


Philile Ntuli is a commissioner of the South African Human Rights Commission.

Never in our national political history has the prospect of a female head of state captured the imagination of public discourse as it has in recent times. Neither has its realisation been as real a possibility as it is currently. The anticipation has also sparked widespread interest in the role of sex and gender in public, political life.

Two main views prevail. Many argue that seating a woman at the highest office will demonstrate and confirm the gains that South Africa has made towards the emancipation of women, and lead to further gender transformation. Others say that women in positions of power – be it in politics, in public, or in the private sector – have done little to nothing to advance the collective status of women in society.

These opposing views raise two main questions. The first probes the consequences, for women as a group, of increasing gender representation in decision-making and executive positions. Consequently, the second would ask why this should even matter.

Perhaps the first place to start in engaging this discourse is by making distinctions between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, and the implications therein for policy decisions regarding the socio-economic empowerment of women.

Sex refers to the biological factors that distinguish women from men. Gender, on the other hand, refers to how we socially perceive and attach meanings to what it means to be either sex. Inevitably, gender meanings vary across social spaces over time, and hybridise through cultures and traditions.

Notwithstanding the variations, historically common across all cultures globally is the ascription of the ‘private’ sphere to women, and the ‘public’ sphere to men. This has resulted in the social, political and economic positioning of women in homes as caregivers and child-rearers. Men, on the other hand, are positioned as leaders of business and politics, and as decision-makers regarding strategic matters. This global culturalisation has had the single role of structuring the world according to its current gender hierarchies. It is also the raison-d’etre for the current global efforts to shift women from the private to the public. It is also on this basis that a female head of state matters.

The very existence of public debate regarding the prospect of a woman president demonstrates that it is not yet uhuru for the gendered sex roles we have inherited, which seek to relegate women into the unseen.

Globally, women still constitute a very small proportion of leaders in the public sphere. For this reality, the increased representation of women in leadership and executive positions in both government and the private sector remains a priority for those who care to see the end of social injustices, both locally and globally.

In South Africa, although our countrywomen do not occupy as equitable a number of executive and political leadership positions as men, the gains we have made nonetheless count as some of the best in the world, and contribute to long-term shifts in the culturally accumulated meanings we have attached to biological sex.

Currently, our South African Parliament has 44% representation of women. These achievements contribute also to the successes of the continent.

McKinsey & Company’s August 2016 Women Matter Africa Report shows that from 2000 to 2015, the proportional number of women parliamentarians in Africa almost doubled. As a result, our continent is ranked second (tied with Latin America) to the European Union in terms of the distribution of female parliamentarians. Of these, South Africa, together with Rwanda and Senegal, is in the lead. Rwanda continues to set an example for all nations globally. It is the only nation in the world with more women (60%) parliamentarians than men.

The private sector too is making progress, albeit slowly. Recent research findings reveal that South African women occupy only 28% of senior management positions in business, with 31% of our companies without any women in their senior management structures. According to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, many companies still claim that women are ‘not ready’ for senior management or executive positions. Only 3% of our companies nationally have female CEOs.

Yet despite these challenges, the African continent has achieved significantly higher values in empowering women into executive and board positions than the average in global numbers.

As a country, we have collectively done exceptionally well in the most traditionally masculinist industries. Currently, South African mining companies have the highest numbers of women on their boards and executive positions compared to their global counterparts. Following these and other achievements, our country is ranked 15th out of 144 countries in the latest Gender Equality Report of the World Economic Forum.

Why should companies and organisations care for women’s shift from the private to the public?

The Women Matter Africa report shows that companies with a larger share of women in executive positions and on their boards perform better financially. In Africa alone, the earnings before interest and taxes of companies with at least a quarter share of women on their boards was about 20% higher than the industry average.

The biggest challenge yet to our efforts is that due to historical, inherited systematic impediments, women tend to lack corporate confidence, and to underestimate their own abilities. The gender representivity efforts of both the public and private sectors therefore have to also care for agency and influence – both matters of power. Added to this is that women continue to occupy their private roles, even when they also shift to the public sphere. This duality adds insurmountable degrees of burden.

At the root of these challenges is the fundamentally gendered nature of organisational structures. The power relations and actions that sustain institutions are patterned in terms of a distinction between male and female, in such ways that masculine principles continue to dominate structures of authority, even in women-predominant organisations. Such patterns promote toxic masculine cultures that devalue women’s presence, relegate them to inferior statuses, and lead to women’s voices being constrained by internal operations.

Not only are there penalties for publicly voicing opinions that sharply differ from their male counterparts, major decisions are made by executive committees which are predominantly male. This is the same logic used in families, which themselves are forms of organisations. The silencing of women who are victims of gender-based-violence is, for example, a defence of the gendered nature of institutions and organisations.

If we agree that male domination is maintained and enforced by organisational norms – be it in political organisations, in the media, in educational institutions, within families, or in our religious institutions – then we cannot expect those who hold power to champion a struggle that could result in the loss of their privileges. The men and women who benefit from the marginalisation of women’s issues strive to see the status quo maintained.

Gender transformation will therefore not occur only as a result of a female president, but mainly from collective revolutionary love for the end of gendered oppressions in all its forms. This requires courage from a united women’s movement that supports each other despite political, religious, racial and class differences. If we are to envision change, we must be able to imagine the total uprootedness of the structures that maintain unjust gendered divisions. The consequences of eschewing this task are incomprehensible.

It is for this that using legislation and policy to advocate for a societal shift of women from the private to the public cannot be our only national goal. Public discourse on the next president would be limited if it were assumed that seating a woman at the highest office would be the end of our quest to dismantle patriarchy. Our main aim as a society is to shift, completely, the roles that have been ascribed to men and women, to such extent that future generations live in a South Africa where the prospect of a female head of state is no longer even a topic for public debate. DM

Philile Ntuli is a researcher and speechwriter. She writes here in her personal capacity. She also self-proclaims as the reigning Queen of all scrabble boards.


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