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Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In a world of uncertainties, salary disparities and glass ceilings, what can really be considered “fair” in the working environment?

“Structural factors exist that give rise to the unequal treatment of women at work and in relation to paid work in general,” says Prof Anita Bosch, a registered master HR practitioner and associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) where she researches women at work. She also teaches in the human capital management and leadership tracks of the USB MBA programme.

Bosch says it is important to correct these factors because ultimately it leads to “improved work-life arrangements for both women and men”.

What is evident is that social norms prevail, and these norms penetrate workplace logic

She says the socialisation of girls to be good mothers and wives is probably the most influential of all activities that create structural obstructions for women. “While being a good mother is important in creating well-balanced children and well-adjusted families, resulting in positive societal benefits, it is vital to highlight the significance of good fathers in raising well-balanced children.”

She says research shows that in contrast to the good mother and/or wife, the ideal worker is available 24/7, disembodied and without any obligations outside the workplace.

“Even though mothers may opt to outsource childcare and homecare, in order to address workplace needs regarding availability, the responsibility of organising and maintaining oversight of outsourced care usually remains with women. Women may therefore experience cognitive dissonance, where conflicting priorities lead to mental discomfort and, ultimately, increased levels of psychological stress,” Bosch says.

“A woman, with or without children, is therefore measured as either a good mother or wife or an ideal worker – seldom both. What is evident, though, is that social norms prevail, and these norms penetrate workplace logic.”

Long work hours and overwork

Bosch says corporate workplaces have come to satisfy both economic and emotional needs, but in return, workers are spending more and more time doing paid work. Research shows intensive work conditions and a demanding competitive culture “lead to overwork, which has become virtuous”.

“Corporate employees engage in overwork to achieve exorbitant performance targets or to exceed these targets, in order to qualify for rewards, recognition and promotion. The computerisation of work, which is said to simplify our lives, has instead resulted in work norms shifting to come in line with machine-like effort.

The argument that they willingly choose to leave is therefore a half-truth – they are often forced out

“As women carry the burden of unequal distribution of home and child care, keeping up with the overwork culture becomes exhausting and may eventually lead to them opting out of paid work altogether. The argument that they willingly choose to leave is therefore a half-truth – they are often forced out.”

USB director Prof Piet Naudé says: “The problem already starts in our education system, which sends both implicit and explicit messages to girls and boys about subject and career choices and what ‘suits’ them better – music, languages and home economics for girls, and science, maths and woodwork for boys.

“This leads to occupations being ‘genderised’, where the ‘caring’ professions like social work, nursing and primary school teaching are accepted as women’s spaces. The ‘doing’ professions, like engineering, agriculture and artisanal jobs, are considered men’s spaces,” he says.

Naudé says these occupations and the preceding educational path endorse and strengthen social stereotypes as the appropriate organisation of labour.

Bosch adds: “It is important to note women are eager to work. They take their education as seriously as men do, and have as much aspiration as men to advance at work. Women are as talented, diligent, hardworking and committed as men.

“It therefore seems strange that organisations are so stubborn to adapt in order to recognise the patterns of unequal power relations and to acknowledge the societal impediments that women face. Once organisations take the realities of women seriously, women and men will be able to participate differently at work, bringing their full selves and talents to bear.”

Bosch suggests the following ways of fostering fairness in the workplace:

  • The manner in which workplaces structure and execute recruitment, selection, performance management and promotion should be re-examined to exclude covert forms of bias.
  • Women should be coached on how to negotiate improved sharing of house and child care with their partners.
  • Women should continue to voice their concerns about fairness, and should perhaps be invited to be brave and discuss openly their lived experiences with their managers. These discussions may lead to altered notions of work and performance.
  • Managers should understand the full life context of their employees and be realistic about performance targets and workplace outputs. Overworking has become the norm for star performers in corporate South Africa. These performance standards should be investigated in light of inequitable gender practices, burnout and general health concerns.
  • Places of work may need to be located in areas with low levels of traffic congestion, while commuting and arrangements to work from home should be carefully monitored for overwork and eliminate psychological distress.
  • When employees are asked to relocate, equal consideration should be given to both partners’ work arrangements. Specialist support, including psychological and relationship counselling and financial planning, should be provided during relocation. Financial planning should focus not only on the person taking on the new position, but also on the person who may take a reduction in income or who may become a stay-at-home parent.

This article was paid for by the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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