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Real girl power needed

Jan 14 2013 09:06 *Mandi Smallhorne

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SNAP quiz: when was the first time any woman in South Africa voted in an election? Anybody know?

May 17 1933. Yep, that’s right. Exactly 80 years ago, within the living (if rather infantile) memory of some of our more venerable citizens, some unknown female dropped the first woman’s vote into a ballot box. (Inevitably, she was white.)

It took the Women's Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU) 38 years to achieve this victory: from 1892, when a motion calling for a qualified franchise for women was defeated in the Cape House of Assembly, till 1930, when the Women’s Enfranchisement Act was passed. (And then the women still had to wait another three years for an election to come along so they could exercise their rights.)

We were 12 years behind the UK, which gave women the vote in 1918 – but only to those over 30 who owned enough property to vote in local elections, or were married to a husband who had the right kind of property.

Women’s fight for a voice in government began back in the 18th century – and it’s still going on. Women only got the vote in Switzerland in 1990 (!), and women will participate in Saudi Arabian elections for the first time in 2015.

But there’s still a lot to fight for before women around the world can feel truly free and equal.

Three things converged in recent days to make me think about this: the appointment of Mark Cutifani to head up Anglo American [JSAE:AGL]; the events in India since mid-December; and a wonderful graphic representation of the gender gap in the USA.

Cynthia Carroll was not always an appealing CEO (Grist magazine notoriously named her "Cyanide Cynthia" because of events around the Pebble Mine in Alaska), but she was one of only three female chief executives of FTSE 100 companies.

Let’s see, umm, that means only 3% of the top companies on the London Stock Exchange are run by women. And the fact that Anglo American has seen fit to appoint a white man I guess means that pretty soon, that will drop to 2%. (Quick factoid I bet you didn’t know about Cutifani: he has seven children – count ‘em, seven – from two marriages. Carroll’s only managed to rack up four.)

Heroes and models are important. I may never have felt the urge to cosy up to Cynthia Carroll for a girlfriend chat, but the fact that she was named one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbes, that she had pushed that FTSE 100 percentage up, gave me a little lift.

How many young girls planning their careers saw her in the business pages and thought, even subconsciously, “I could do that too”?

We need models that encourage our young women to venture into untried territory, so we can make the most of their wonderful talents and skills.

Because any society which is not mining its full potential is losing out (pardon the pun). And nowhere in the world is the full potential of women – half the human race – being tapped.

Stella Nkomo, professor in the department of human resource management at the University of Pretoria, told me in an interview last year that “There are four women CEOs [on the JSE], and that figure has stayed the same since 2004”.

According to the Business Women’s Association South Africa’s Women in Leadership Census 2012, women hold only 17.1% of executive management jobs in companies listed on the JSE.

Meanwhile, as the graphic I saw showed, the gender gap in pay continues to haunt us worldwide. In the States, women with the same qualifications as men earn over 17% less – and that is pretty much echoed in developed countries round the world (it can be even worse in developing ones).

The graphic pointed out beautifully that equalising women’s pay would translate into a huge boost for the economy, increasing gross domestic product by 9%.

What stops women from achieving, reaching the top, or simply earning as much as the man next to them on the assembly line or in the cubicles?

Quite simply: patriarchy - "rule by the fathers". Yes, the same mindset that gives us the more violent and disturbing manifestations of sexism – such as the brutal rape and murder of "India’s daughter", which has provoked such an amazing backlash. (And let me just point out that they say a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India – well, in South Africa, it’s believed to occur twice as often.)

Thinking that, as one executive told me, “Women can’t run companies because they’re too emotional” may be a milder manifestation of patriarchy than thinking that a woman is your chattel to be used sexually as you wish, but it is still a denial of full equality.

Sorry, guys, but a world in which the male is the primary authority figure is not working for us – all of us.

We need a world in which neither gender dominates, but both fully participate. A world in which no woman suffers brutalisation because she is considered less than fully human and therefore fair game. A world where no child goes without because his single mom is underpaid. And a world in which a fairer proportion of the top spots, the Anglo CEO-ships, are held by women.

 The fight for equality is a long way from over.

 - Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own.
 

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mandi smallhorne  |  gender equality
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