Picture: 123RF/Mark Bowden
Picture: 123RF/Mark Bowden

The gender pay gap in SA has narrowed substantially for the lowest-paid and best-paid women over the past 25 years — thanks mainly to minimum wage legislation and affirmative action — but for those in the middle it has remained persistently wide, a new study has found.

The fact that SA’s pay gap at the mean declined from 40% in 1993 to 16% in 2014 masks these differences, suggesting the country has largely defeated wage discrimination. Though this isn’t the case, some positive strides have been made.

One of the most striking findings of the study is that working women are now better qualified on average than working men. If it were not so, the wage gap would be even wider, says the author, Jacqueline Mosomi, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Southern African labour & development research unit.

Her working paper is one of a series published under the auspices of SA-TIED, a collaboration between the UN University World Institute for Development Economics Research, SA’s National Treasury and local governmental and research organisations.

"SA’s secondary school female enrolment is about 96% and girls are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend and graduate from university," says Mosomi.

The proportion of women in the SA labour force with a tertiary education rose from 10% in 1993 to about 20% in 2015, whereas for men it rose from 11% to only 15% over the same period. This increase in educational attainment allowed women, especially well-qualified white women, to take advantage of affirmative action laws.

Between 1994 and 2015, the proportion of women in managerial positions in SA almost doubled from 19% to 36% while, in absolute terms, the number of women managers and legislators increased from about 58,888 to about 279,719.

Not surprisingly, the gender wage gap among the top 10% of female earners dropped from 48% in 1993 to 18% in 2014. But given women’s increased participation in the labour force, the fact that they are on average better qualified than men, coupled with the impetus provided by affirmative action, one might have expected the gap to have dropped to zero.

Part of Mosomi’s research agenda was to establish why this wage gap persists. Discrimination may be a factor, but she is reluctant to make too much of this as it’s difficult to quantify.

What she can say is that "occupational barring" may be preventing women from taking up management and leadership roles. "The problem we have in SA is that occupations and industries are effectively segregated, with women occupying more of the poorly paid occupations and men occupying most of the well-paying occupations," she explains. For instance, there are very few women in the most lucrative industries, such as mining.

While women are well represented in professional, technical and associate professional jobs, within these classifications they are more likely to be found in care-related areas such as teaching and nursing, which carry a pay penalty. Black and coloured women overwhelmingly fill low-paying occupations.

Another part of the problem, says Mosomi, is that women have less time to invest in the labour market because they carry out the bulk of child care and unpaid care work — SA men spend only five minutes a day on average on "care of persons", while women spend 29 minutes.

"Social norms have not changed in that women are still overrepresented in care occupations and shoulder most of the care burden," says Mosomi. "This may explain the persistence of a gender wage gap in SA."

This suggests that to narrow the wage gap SA should be striving to increase the number of women in male-dominated occupations and to alleviate the disproportionate burden of care work women shoulder by, for example, providing crèche facilities.

For the bottom 10%, minimum wage laws have pushed up wages for low-income occupations, especially domestic work, which women dominate, helping to reduce the gender wage gap from 60% to 7% between 1997 and 2014.

But for the median worker — who typically has only slightly more than 10 years of schooling — progress has stagnated, with women still earning 23%-35% less than their male counterparts. This may be because, generally, wages have stagnated at the median as a result of a shift in demand towards those with tertiary skills, and because industry and many occupations at the median remain dominated by men.

"With minimum wages helping to boost wages at the bottom and the demand for skilled labour pushing up wages at the top, it seems that the median worker has mainly been forgotten in the post-apartheid labour market, with similar implications for the median gender wage gap," Mosomi concludes.