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Can women close the skills gap in SA?

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In the run up to Women’s Month, the subject of women in the workplace often becomes prevalent. Antiquated perceptions of gender specific occupations need to be changed if we are to close the gender gap and address the country’s rampant skill shortage.

“Results of the 2014 MasterCard Index of Women’s Advancement, published in September 2014, show that gender inequality towards women at work remains. The overall index score of 73.5 for 2014 is marginally higher than the outcome of 73.4 in 2013 and 73.3 in 2012. However, a score of 73.5 means South African women at work are still not equal to men, as a score of 100 indicates gender equality,” Lyndy van den Barselaar, MD of Manpower South Africa, explains. “The leadership indicators showed that for every 100 male business leaders there are 57.5 women, and for every 100 male business owners there are just 25.5 women.”

Further, Van den Barselaar notes that the Gender Equality Bill, which would have required South African employers to ensure that 50% of their workforce was female, lapsed in May after being passed to the National Council of Provinces for further consideration in March 2014, and therefore will not be re-introduced.

“This means that the youth, and businesses within the public and private sectors need to take it upon themselves to work towards closing the gender inequality gap in South Africa,” states Van den Barselaar, who has been in the recruitment industry since 1996, and became MD of Manpower South Africa in January 2012 while still carrying the duties of Financial Manager since May 2011.

The Manpower Talent Shortage Survey for 2015 once again identified Engineers and Skilled Trades as the most difficult positions for South African employers to fill, followed by Management/Executive positions in third place and Accounting & Finance staff in fourth place. Van den Barselaar believes that women have a fundamental role to play in filling these positions.

“The skills shortage in the country is having a negative effect on almost all our major and secondary industries, and it is important that the youth make informed educational decisions in order to ensure they are able to find employment where there is a shortage of suitable candidates,” says Van den Barselaar. “Available data from 2011 indicates that African and/or female graduates accounted for more than 50% in all scarce skills fields, except in Engineering and Sciences where African and/or female graduates were reported at 26%.”

Van den Barselaar notes that a shortage of graduates in these important industries could be owing to a number of factors. “Factors such as a lack of funding, a lack of student support, or even the perception that a certain industry is more suited to males could account for a lack of students completing a certain course and a lack of female graduates.”

It is important that businesses work towards changing the perceptions of certain industries being more suited a certain sex, and offering graduate and skills training programmes for interested graduates, or even students looking to study in the field.

It has been found that students are often not well informed on the different career opportunities or what studying towards their chosen field entails, which leads to low outputs rates, as the students struggle with learning areas they are not suited or skilled for. “Not only should students seek the advice of their teachers, lecturers and guardians when making educational and career choices, but they should also take the initiative to research the latest employment trends and statistics. Career assessments can also prove useful when a student is feeling unsure about what they would like to do in the future and what field of study they would be most suited to,” says Van den Barselaar.

“Additionally, businesses can contribute to this by offering students short internships, where they can gauge a better idea of what the industry and working environment is like. If businesses did this in conjunction with the universities and learning institutions, they could create a drive for more female candidates, in order to change perceptions of that certain industry being more suited to male candidates.”

Van den Barselaar notes that female graduates are key to bridging the skills gap in South Africa. “However, this requires a change in the perceptions of women in the workplace,” she says.

A survey carried out on 60 major corporations by McKinsey & Company in 2012 found that the number and percentage of women decreases dramatically in the higher ranks of organisations. While 325 000 women had entry level positions, only 150 000 had made it to middle management and a mere 7 000 had made it to vice-president, senior vice-president or CEO.

“It is important that young South African women are working hard to achieve their goals, and are doing all they can to reach these top-level positions, rather than settling for entry level or middle management positions. This may assist in making management/executive positions less difficult for South African employers to fill (according to the TSS 2015), in years to come,” she says.

In conclusion, Van den Barselaar shares some of her tips for those women who are driven to succeed in the business environment. “Continue to educate yourself in every way possible; always work on improving yourself; find a mentor; stay focused on your goals and work hard towards reaching them; commit to the journey; and most importantly, believe in yourself and never give up.”