Removing the Rhetoric: Women at Work

“Mum, do you know what the division of labour means?” asked my 10 year old son, enthusiastically, at the end of another interesting day at school.

Of course, in typical mum fashion, I pretended not to know so that he could share his understanding in his own words. He explained that there is no longer division of labour in the workplace today as there had been in the past. He cited examples of how women can be engineers and men can be chefs – and that both genders are equal to any task. Bravo!

These are the messages we need to be sending out to young boys and girls in their formative years so that they develop a progressive attitude and outlook to life. Oh! And it does help that my son has a fellow female learner who plays with them on the school soccer team – talk about giving them a run… literally!

As optimistic as this makes me feel, let me remove my rose-tinted glasses and share how the notion of “equality” as espoused in textbooks and workplace employment guidelines often fails in practice.

A few years ago, two months into the pregnancy of my second son, I had applied for a half-day job, which suited me perfectly given my other freelance work. The company loved my CV and thought I was a perfect fit – in their words. They replied saying they would be keen for me to consider another position – a full day, full-time post. I explained that with my pregnancy, I would prefer the half-day position and that this would also minimise disruptions to their business flow.

I did not hear from them again. But, their silence spoke volumes. I was naturally very upset, more so because this was a company that advertised that they are run by women, for women. So surely, they would understand and be familiar with pregnancy and maternity leave? Surely, they would value my honesty?

I wanted to call them out – but then I realised, given their nonchalant attitude, they would probably label it a matter of my “raging pregnancy hormones”.

And so I chose to breathe and move on. Why then am I bringing it up now, you may ask? Shouldn’t we be celebrating Women’s Month?

I’m a journalist. I believe in telling it like it is. Particularly during August in South Africa, it’s easy to say all the right things; easy to share flattering words on social media and create an impression that women do have an equal place at work stations. But what happens during the other 11 months of the year? Are women recognised for the worth they bring to the workplace, and not judged or overlooked based on their choices? Always easier said than done, as my experience proves.

Dynamics within the workplace for both men and women have shifted tremendously, with the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Like millions of South Africans, I have been working from home since March 2020. I have surpassed my own expectations. I have learnt new skills and techniques, and grown both professionally and personally. Of course, there have been challenges too.

Juggling taking care of the children, cooking, cleaning and the dishes – oh those dishes! – amid work emails, discussions and the actual work is a delicate balancing act. And I know I’m not alone.

According to a report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, “The impacts of crises are never gender-neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception.”

“For countless women in economies of every size, along with losing income, unpaid care and domestic work burden has exploded. While everyone is facing unprecedented challenges, women are bearing the brunt of the economic and social fallout of COVID-19.”

This is the difficult reality facing us in Women’s Month and beyond. I draw inspiration from anti-apartheid activist Professor Fatima Meer, who said, “Regardless of how many years we have spent in this life, we must get up and shout.”

I’m using my voice to shout against unfair labour prejudices that persist.

I’m using my voice to shout against companies that practice discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy and motherhood.

I’m using my voice to shout against patriarchal beliefs that domestic work should be borne by women alone.

Can I hear you shouting with me too?

1 thought on “Removing the Rhetoric: Women at Work

  1. Well said Maya. I salute all working women with young kids – especially during this challenging time of Covid. Throw in electricity cuts and water disruptions at times and it is enough to make anyone scream! Stay strong

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