The #FirstWorldProblem South Africa’s women would love to have

More women are entering the South African workplace, but it’s been slow to embrace their needs.
More women are entering the South African workplace, but it’s been slow to embrace their needs.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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The interesting thing about the debate over Yahoo’s ban on working from home is that there was even a debate.

That seems a luxury from my perch in South Africa, where telecommuting is hardly common.

Women here face a juggling crisis. In a recent study of black dual-career couples, Johannesburg management professor Anita Bosch and her colleagues found that the female participants prioritized work over children and relationships. Some of this is understandable: black women’s chance to even have careers came very recently, with the advent of democracy in 1994. Still a stark gender gap remains: 60% of men are employed, compared to 31% of women. Not only do these women face pressure to seize economic opportunities, it has become a personal imperative, as they see how work can transform their lives and that of their families.

But this comes at a cost. Latchkey kids, who return from school to an empty house because parents are working, are becoming as common here as they once were in the US. South African kids finish their school day much earlier at around 1:30 or 2 p.m., and the country does not have a strong childcare mechanisms (private afterschool centers are pricey). Two years ago, research by the South African Institute of Race Relations found the typical South African child is raised by a single mother. Of those estimated 9 million children, the phenomenon of latchkey kids is a rising and especially prevalent in townships, says Bosch.

Yet it doesn’t have to be so, says the professor in people management at the University of Johannesburg. The answer, she says, is telecommuting, better known here as “flexi-time.”

A 2012 Grant Thornton International Business Report said “only 39% of the women surveyed in South Africa indicated that their businesses offer flexible working conditions such as flexible hours and alternative locations to work from.” This number actually sounds high to Madge Gibson, principal at global executive search firm, Odgers Berndtson in South Africa. (For comparison’s sake, a recent study of employers found 63% of US companies allowed employees to work some hours from in 2012—up from 34% in 2005. Meanwhile, a separate survey found at least 80% of US companies offer some form of telecommuting.)

“In my experience, flexible work is popular from an employee perspective, but still not being fully embraced by the South African workplace,” says Gibson.

One policy change that could trigger change is the passage of the Gender Equity Bill, which would force public and private companies to appoint women to a full half of top positions. This could lead to significant cultural changes in the workplace, such as a broader acceptance of flexi-time.

And there is another silver lining to Bosch’s findings. Corporate South Africa’s rigid work structure is giving rise to entrepreneurship among women. This allows them to create work environments that suit their needs. Still, they are in the minority and face obstacles, such as accessing financing. “They are dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t,” Bosch says. The solution is clear: South African firms just need to catch up to women’s ambitions.