News & events


13 June 2024

Women’s position and barriers in the South African labour market

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Image generated by AI, Freepik

Women still face many institutional barriers that impede their socio-economic empowerment and independence. For example, limited water rights restrict their ability to contribute to food security and benefit from agricultural opportunities. HSRC research on gendered water access disparities shows that women in South Africa hold only 11% of the water licences required to conduct commercial agriculture. Similarly, approximately half of South Africa’s female population participates in the workforce, compared to the participation of almost two-thirds of men.

The significance of female labour force participation extends beyond individual economic independence. According to United Nations Women, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Labour Organization, female labour force participation is a vital component of broader economic development and gender equality. As women represent a substantial portion of potential human capital, their active participation in labour markets can lead to considerable economic gains and higher economic growth rates.

Women who are active in the labour force also contribute to improved family and community well-being. Dr Shanaaz Dunn, a data manager at the HSRC, argues that economically empowered women are more likely to invest in their families and communities in ways that catalyse broader social benefits, such as better health, education, and a reduction in child mortality.

Considering a continuous and disproportionate rise in female unemployment, Dunn analysed statistics from the 2017 South African National Income and Dynamics Survey to examine the position of South African women in the workforce and the factors influencing their participation. Research to better understand these factors is crucial for the empowerment of women. The findings could lead to the implementation of policies and the development of effective strategies and reforms, ensuring interventions are well informed and targeted to address the specific needs and challenges faced by women in South Africa, thereby advancing global development agendas.

According to Dunn, the variety of cultural and socio-economic landscapes in South Africa means that women across the country often have drastically different experiences, depending on where they live and work. For example, women in rural areas are potentially more likely to be influenced by traditional gender roles and cultural expectations, while urban women may face increased economic burdens. The findings confirmed that workforce participation is affected by a complex interplay of socio-economic, political and cultural factors.

Education level significantly affects a woman’s likelihood of entering the labour force. Women with tertiary education are eight times more likely to be part of the labour force, while those with secondary and primary education are, respectively, nearly three and two times more likely to be part of the work force compared to those without any formal education. Access to and outcomes of education continue to show stark inequalities between genders and races.

Similarly, there is a significant disparity between rural and urban female participation in the labour force. Urban women have a higher participation rate of 55.77%, compared to 40.29% for rural women. Urban areas offer more job opportunities than rural areas, leading to higher participation rates in cities. In contrast, rural areas often adhere to traditional attitudes of gender roles, which can crucially affect women’s ability, desire, or freedom to engage in the workforce. In the article, Dunn and her colleagues suggest that enhancing education opportunities in rural areas could increase women’s employability.

Household size, income level, and family dynamics also influence the likelihood of a woman’s participation in the workforce. Women in households with higher incomes are more likely to participate in the labour force. Specifically, those in households earning more than R11,000.00 per month are nearly twice as likely to be economically active compared to those in households earning R3,500.00 or less per month. The article emphasises that this indicates women’s contributions to households are not insignificant and that better access to resources such as childcare and transportation facilitates participation in the workforce.

Conversely, larger household sizes negatively affect women’s participation in the labour force. For example, women in households with 10 or more members are significantly less likely to participate in the labour force compared to those in smaller households (1–3 members). Dunn explains that larger households in South Africa tend to include more children and elderly people. The burden of care may therefore often fall on women, and they become unable to join the workforce. To alleviate this burden and to support women in large households, the article suggests that policies should extend social protection, increase access to affordable childcare, and implement programmes that support women entrepreneurs and workers.

This article also highlights the impact of marriage on the likelihood of female labour force participation. Marriage trends in South Africa have significantly shifted over the last few decades, reflecting global trends, with fewer people choosing marriage. Despite the assumption that unmarried women would dominate the labour force, the study found that married women are in fact more actively engaged in the workforce. These findings underscore the importance of implementing strategies driven by families and communities to promote gender equality in the labour market.

The participation of women in South Africa’s workforce is not just about achieving gender equality but may be a crucial economic imperative. Dunn and her colleagues have shed light on significant disparities in participation rates across urban and rural areas, as well as among educated and uneducated women, underscoring the pivotal role of education in enhancing workforce involvement. This research has also elucidated how cultural norms and household dynamics pose challenges that can restrict women’s economic prospects. Importantly, the economic contributions of women significantly boost household incomes and national economic growth, demonstrating the broader social and economic advantages of empowering women.

Research contact:

Dr Shanaaz Dunn, data manager in the HSRC’s Developmental, Capable and Ethical State division

Related Articles