#EmbraceEquity was the most popular hashtag on Twitter and Instagram around the world on 8 March 2023. The slogan was the tagline for International Women’s Day (IWD) and in the age of instantly shareable messages, it travelled far and wide.
“What we’re seeing is a coordinated effort globally to make the lives of girls and women better,” says Nthakoana Maema, CEO of impact incubator, Oribi.
The Oribi incubation model helps women discover economic freedom through collective networks and entrepreneurship development.
Oribi also tackles long-lasting legacy issues and aims to foster a society where gender norms are challenged. “The income and pay gap still exists in South Africa and the world,” Maema says, “and we need to empower all stakeholders to take women’s issues seriously.” The gender pay gap remains a global issue that’s of particular concern in Africa and South Africa, where estimates put the median wage difference between men and women at a high of 35%. More female business owners mean a bigger economy with a greater number of opportunities for everyone.
These businesses often benefit wider society as a whole. What challenges still need to be tackled for female employees and business owners?
Funding is a challenge
More and more women are entering male-dominated spheres but their ability to attract funding for their business is often stymied. “Property ownership is typically used as collateral for a business loan, yet female entrepreneurs often don’t qualify,” Maema notes. “Banks can be rigid in their approach, and when credit is offered, it’s often a reduced sum. This, despite the fact that female entrepreneurship creates jobs, lessens poverty and improves living standards.” Typically, female entrepreneurs might turn to the government for assistance, but the process tends to be less than positive with red tape the norm.
Often, government agencies don’t understand what the money is needed for, responses lack a gendered lens and so female entrepreneurs are forced to use their own savings or look for the help of an angel investor. “Regulatory red tape is a reality for everyone,” Maema says, “but there’s an unspoken yet pervading assumption that female entrepreneurs might be less capable of handling the loan, and so even more stumbling blocks are put up in their way.”
Outdated models of thinking
The goal is to stop signalling to children that they’re better at different things because of their gender, Maema notes, because all that does is limit people. In reality, while women entrepreneurs do sometimes choose jobs in the care economy, there are countless examples of female inventors, engineers and scientists who deserve a spotlight: incredible women like Dr Keabetswe Ncube, a Genomics Specialist at Inqaba Biotechnical, or Dr Sylvia Fanucchi, a Protein Biochemist and Senior Lecturer at Wits University.
“It’s absolutely okay for a woman to want to work in the care economy – this work should be valued – but they should also feel free to enter a ‘male-dominated’ field,” Maema says. “Yet we rarely publicise the women who do valuable work in the sciences and so this creates the misconception that there’s a neat little box for each gender.”
STEM fields need more woman
The STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are a hot topic. In South Africa, 13% of STEM graduates from higher education are women, while globally, that figure is 35%. “There’s huge room to improve,” Maema says, “but the exciting thing is that it’s eminently fixable.
“Look no further than the Inspiring African Women community, which was started to continue celebrating exceptional women in STEM fields, building on the successes of the Inspiring Fifty SA, which began life as a simple WhatsApp group. Now, after four years, there’s enough influence, intelligence and shared common purpose to require a formal platform for these changemakers to come together and thrive on.”
These women do not lack knowledge, Maema says, but they do lack a platform. What if there were an advocacy drive that gave female STEM leaders their individual and collective voice in global reform? “That would be incredibly powerful, and it would be enormously helpful to the economy too.”
Gender-inclusive spaces are a must
“For too long, offices have pandered to men and left women feeling they’re an afterthought,” Maema says. “People do their best work in an environment they feel comfortable in. By creating gender-inclusive spaces, women can build their own networks and design their own road to economic empowerment.” Change is afoot, however. In February, Spain was the first European country to pass a bill allowing unlimited menstrual leave for women from work. Spain follows on the heels of countries like Indonesia and Japan, who are taking women’s needs seriously. “It’s a sign that things are changing,” Maema adds. “To have blanket policies in the workplace that only enable men to thrive, and don’t reflect the huge numbers of women working full-time, would be a mistake.
“These sorts of moves will empower women not only to become the best versions of themselves as an employee, but to have the confidence to strike out on their own and one day become an employer.”
Small businesses continue to struggle
Globally, SMEs have faced uncertainty since Covid-19 while large corporate entities have been able to weather the storm and come out the other side better positioned than ever. On the ground in the community itself, local spending often ends up in the hands of corporate players that control the supply chain. And female-operated SMEs who do work in the area often spend all their time trying to keep their business afloat; they simply don’t have the time to coordinate with others to increase the economies of scale. The result is a shrinking pool of players, with a small few controlling most of the stakes.
The gender pay gap is still an uncomfortable reality
There’s much to be positive about, Maema says, but still a lot more to be done. The gender pay gap remains a global issue that’s of particular concern in South Africa.
What’s more, unemployment figures are high among women. As President Cyril Ramaphosa noted at the Second Women Economic Assembly in 2022, 47% of South African women aged between 15 and 64 are deemed “economically inactive”. “Again, it’s a question of opportunity and ensuring all genders have equal access and shorter pathways to the heart of the value chain,” Maema says. Ultimately, despite these challenges, this is one of the few countries in the world where the number of women starting their own business is actually growing, something that Maema says can only be a net positive. “More female business owners means a bigger economy with a greater number of opportunities for everyone.” And these businesses often benefit wider society as a whole. Look no further than Sibongile Mongadi’s Uku’hamba project, which is building prosthetic limbs from affordable materials or the SME-funding firm Akiba, co-founded by Tebogo Mokwena. “Going forward,” Maema says, “the key is to incubate and support budding entrepreneurs while ensuring marginalised groups are equipped to navigate South Africa’s corporate machinery.” Fostering talent this way is the Oribi vision through and through.