Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist


SA women better qualified than men but not employed – study

The study's findings challenge stereotypes regarding the female workforce, motherhood, career advancement and career pauses.


South African women are better qualified than men but are not as often employed according to a new study that also dispels many myths about women in the workplace, such as that they only want to work from home or half-day.

The findings of South Africa’s largest Working Women Report shed light on the challenges and opportunities for women in the workforce and provides significant recommendations for businesses to tackle the country’s skills shortage by tapping into the underutilised skilled female talent pool.

The research study, commissioned by recruitment agency, RecruitMyMom, was conducted online in November 2023 and 2 468 skilled women between the ages of 18 and 64 who live predominantly in Gauteng, the Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal participated. Skilled was defined as someone who had attained at least a matric or AS level as part of their education.

According to the study results, women are underrepresented in the labour force trailing behind men by 10.6 percentage points and represent only 15% of executives at JSE-listed companies, despite 92% of the participants expressing a strong desire to work and 78% aspiring to career growth.

In addition, the study indicated that women outpace men in educational qualifications, constituting 52% of postgraduate education and 47% within STEM fields at various academic levels. 

ALSO READ: Empowering women in the workplace: The role of men

45% of women want to change jobs due to pay discrimination

It also showed that 45% of the participants are actively seeking alternative employment due to a lack of internal career opportunities, pay discrimination, inflexibility and insufficient mentorship and networking opportunities.

“In a country with limited data we now have quantitative insights that unveil the expectations and preferences of working women in the workplace. The report provides a wealth of insights for businesses aiming to attract and retain top female talent, encouraging a culture of diversity, inclusion, and economic empowerment,” Phillipa Geard, CEO and founder of RecruitMyMom, says.

“Women are highly motivated to work and identify financial income, self-worth, their contribution to society and social interactions as the main drivers. The overwhelming majority mentioned financial income as their primary or secondary motivation for employment, driven by the desire for financial independence and the ability to support their families.”

The significance of competitive and fair financial reward is evident, as 80% of working respondents have dependents (children or family) and 38% are sole household income earners, while 21% are married and financially support their partners as the sole income earners.

A considerable 28% care for both children and relatives, known as the sandwich generation, where working women face the challenge of assisting their family members in different life stages.

ALSO READ: The world of work is cruel to women

Not all working mothers want to work remotely

The study’s findings also dispel the assumption that all working mothers want to work remotely, part-time, or only half-day, with 55% of the participants preferring to work full-time hours, regardless of age, to support their need for financial gain and aspiration for career growth.

Of the participants who want to work full-time, 32% prefer a full week, while 23% seek full-time with a shorter week and the remainder shorter work days and hours.

Geard says although mothers need flexibility to integrate their work and home life, 60% of them prefer a hybrid working model.

“Flexibility also emerges as a critical factor for career progression, with 60% of participants at the executive level valuing flexible working hours.”

Although businesses are often concerned when applicants have gaps in their CV’s, the study shows that 49% of women took a career break for a variety of valid reasons.

ALSO READ: Is that gap on your CV a good thing?

Why women pause their careers

Geard points out that businesses lose more than one-fifth of female talent when women pause their careers for motherhood, although 95% return to work. In particular, 92% of working mothers between the ages of 25 and 34 have high ambitions to advance professionally in addition to their parental duties.

To take care of their mental health and wellbeing, 12% of the participants took a career break, which is not surprising, considering Covid-19 worsened depression and anxiety due to the social and economic disruptions people experienced.

Retrenchment is seldom a reflection of individual performance and should be recognised as such, Geard says. It affected 11% of working women due to economic shifts, Covid-19 and budget constraints. More than 4% of the women participants paused to study further.

ALSO READ: Women still trailing in men’s wake at work

Barriers to career advancement for women

According to the study, participants indicated that the lack of internal opportunities is the most significant barrier to career advancement along with lack of mentorship and networking, pay discrimination, age bias, inflexible work policies and limited or no training.

“For these women, career advancement does not solely require moving upwards but also horizontally.”

The study also showed that an attractive and competitive salary package, medical aid contribution, pension and provident fund, a bonus and training and development are the top perks women want. Surprisingly, maternity leave or child-care support was not regarded as a significant incentive.

These guidelines for business emerged from the study:

  • Women want competitive salaries in line with industry standards.
  • Companies must embrace flexibility by offering a range of options, including micro-flexibility, hybrid working, full remote work, flexible hours, or anything in between.
  • Companies must expand the talent pool beyond major business centres by enabling fully remote work for skilled women in various regions and remote towns.
  • Companies must strategically support women through career pauses to retain their talent.
  • Companies must provide education opportunities and consider career pauses for study to retain valuable talent.
  • They must prioritise training, mentorship and development for employee growth.
  • They can build trust through transparent pay structures.
  • They should embrace age diversity in teams.
  • Companies must empower women to negotiate various benefits to retain their talent.
  • Companies must actively encourage a future senior management talent pipeline by offering flexibility and the option for career pauses at the senior level.

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