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The Future Is Female

  • EDITORIAL
  • 5 min read

Gender parity in the workplace has come a long way. Last year, Bloomberg reported that women held 29% of board seats in South Africa’s top 100 listed organisations, versus an average of 20% on major G20 exchanges. Despite this, male domination in industries like insurance and heavy haulage remains rampant. Women like Pauline Pillay, Santam’s Head: Operations Commercial and Personal Lines, and Natalie Mpele, relationship manager at Santam Heavy Haulage, are redefining that narrative and opening doors for future generations.

Gender Parity Makes Business Sense

Having women participate equally in the economy is not just a moral imperative, it makes economic sense.

Mpele says, “Women are certainly breaking boundaries. We are entering workspaces that were and are still dominated by men and that is worth celebrating. While I would like to thank all the beautiful souls whose shoulders I stand on, I also want to challenge organisations to consciously redress the gender imbalances in the industry. We must encourage women to join logistics and its entire supply chain at all levels because a diverse workforce has proven to not only foster collaboration, understanding and tolerance but also boosts competition and productivity.”

Mpele’s sentiments are backed by numerous studies, including one done by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR), a US-based think tank specialising in international relations. CFR’s research into gender equality in South Africa found that if women’s participation fully matched men’s, the country’s annual GDP would grow by more than R1 trillion by 2025. 

There Are Always Hurdles:

As both Pillay and Mpele can attest to, fostering increased participation by women in male-dominated industries comes with a wide array of challenges.

Pillay says, “You must have an aptitude for continuous learning, courage, and humanness to be able to overcome the obstacles that will be routinely placed in your way. I often reflect and am grateful to all the women who lit the path for me and how they had to raise their hands to lead, even though it may have felt as if the whole world was against them. You need that kind of determination.”

The difficulties are not only mental. To a large extent the reason so many industries remain male dominated is that the sheer gender imbalance means women are often not even exposed to the idea that they can participate in that industry. Take heavy haulage, for example. According to Mpele, only about 1% of truck drivers are women even though studies have shown that women are three times less like to be involved in accidents than men, five times less like to break traffic laws and are generally better at managing multiple tasks.

Mpele says, “The most significant barrier to entry for women in my industry is a lack of exposure which, in turn, leads to a lack of experience. We need to work towards making the entry process more visible and focus on the right areas in the industry where women can make a difference.”

Make It Enticing

Both Pillay and Mpele stress the importance of making the industry as attractive as possible to encourage future generations of women to enter it.

Pillay says, “For men and women, insurance is not exactly the most glamourous industry. That means we are already at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting talent. Unfortunately, that only helps to perpetuate male domination in the industry because prospective participants in the industry may then look at insurance and think to themselves that there is no point in joining a career that is ‘unexciting’ and has the challenges associated with being male dominated. It is up to us to showcase the dynamic and exciting nature of the industry to counteract this perception.”

In the world of heavy haulage, it is even more difficult. Mpele asserts that truck driving is one of the 10 most difficult positions to fill across 36 different countries. In South Africa, filling those positions with women is especially difficult because of a lack of infrastructure that accommodates women at major route truck stops. The unattractiveness of the occupation is further compounded by macro factors, like high crime.

Mpele says, “The threat of being hijacked or mugged and ongoing xenophobic attacks on our national routes often outweighs the positive factors of employment. Another plausible reason for the shortage of truck drivers, especially female ones, is that long-haul truck driving is not considered an attractive career as the younger generations prioritise careers that offer a good life-work balance. With that said, there are a wide range of different careers within the logistics industry and many different barriers to be broken through.”

What The Future Holds

It has often been said that the journey of 1 000 kilometres begins with a single step. The same is true for achieving gender parity in the South African economy.

Mpele says, “Although the progress in incorporating women into the industry is slow, it is there. We just need to keep pushing, identifying, and creating platforms for women to make a much-needed contribution not only to the industry but also the economy at large.”

Pillay concludes, “Reaching equality is going to require the kind of leadership, love, courage, grit, and kindness that are foundational to enhancing the lives of today’s society. We, the ones who are here now, must prepare a platform that enables the success of future generations. They, in turn, will do the same and through that process of paying it forward, we will achieve all we want and so much more.”