Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET
Picture: 123RF/CATHY YEULET

In 2012, a 27-year-old miner, Pinky Mosiane, was found in a pool of blood with a used condom discarded nearby after having been attacked by a co-worker in a Rustenburg mine. The young mother, who had been working underground in an isolated area, died shortly afterwards.

Stories like this provided the impetus for the adoption of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) most recent International Labour Standard on workplace violence and harassment (Convention 190). Con.190 specifically includes a provision on “gender-based violence and harassment”. This means Mosiane and millions of others who have been subject to unacceptable behaviours and harm due to their gender at the workplace now have an international treaty that calls for the implementation of policies, programmes and legislation to prevent violence and harassment. SA is in the process of ratifying Con.190.

SA has one of the highest femicide rates in the world (gender-based violence affects one in three women globally). In a speech in 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa said about 51% of women in the country have experienced violence at the hands of their partners. Cases spiked considerably during the lockdown in 2020, piling on more hardship for women, who were affected more negatively than men by the Covid-19 pandemic. Women make up the majority of health, domestic, retail and care workers.

Gender-based violence and harassment, apart from being morally repugnant, is also bad for business. It affects employees’ physical and mental health and wellbeing, leading to stress, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, motivation, performance and productivity. It also leads to higher employee turnover and increased absenteeism. However, only one in three companies globally have specific measures to prevent violence and harassment.

Diversity, particularly in decision-making, brings multiple perspectives to bear on problems. This is not just corporate guff — this stuff really matters. According to the ILO’s Women in Business Report (2019) almost three-quarters of those companies that tracked gender diversity in their management reported profit increases of between 5% and 20%, with the majority seeing increases of between 10% and 15%. In the 2008/2009 global financial crisis, banks with a higher share of women on their boards were more stable than their peers, and the evidence suggests that banks run by women might be less vulnerable in a crisis.

But let’s start with the basics. A key thing business can do is to create a neutral safe environment for all workers. A big issue is that abuse and harassment in the workplace are often unreported as the victim may worry about the consequences and may feel vulnerable about their job security. Creating a culture in workplaces where harassment can be reported in a sensitive and confidential way is critical.

Where possible, firms should facilitate a process for anonymised disclosure. They should also commit to promptly and thoroughly investigating all sexual harassment allegations. It is essential that victims are given the confidence to speak up, as failure to treat a complaint seriously can exacerbate the problem and the liability. Companies can visibly promote their commitment to this agenda, but this needs to be led from the top down by the CEO.

Sector-level initiatives are also important to tackle specific issues women face in key sectors where women predominate, such as retail, bars and restaurants, schools, health care and social care, and where they face significant exposure to violence and harassment. To be fair to the mining sector, it has done much to make mines safer workplaces for women since Mosiane’s murder and to widen gender diversity in the workforce.

One key thing working in women’s favour is technology. Technology through artificial intelligence, robotics and automation is doing away with a lot of the mundane, repetitive jobs — the jobs that required physicality and were more dangerous and dirty. Jobs that often were done by men.

What workplaces in the coming decades will need more of are human skills such as communication and interpersonal; empathy and emotional intelligence. Women are more disposed genetically to have some of these essential future-of-work skills than men. Take a traditionally “hard-hatted” male-dominated sector such as car manufacturing. Fewer men are needed to lift stuff because robots do that now. What the sector increasingly needs is more designers. More conceptual thinkers. More creative thinkers. More managers. More women?

This is the future, and it can be a good one in terms of gender equality in the workplace. In the meantime, let’s make the workplace safe for all women.

• Rynhart is senior specialist in employers’ activities with the International Labour Organization, based in SA. He is author of ‘Colouring the Future: Why the UN Plan to End Poverty and Wars is Working’.

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