THE period for public comment on the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill ended yesterday, as some human resource experts warned that absolute quotas for equal representation of men and women in the workplace might not be feasible.
The bill, which was approved by cabinet last month and published in the Government Gazette, requires "all entities" to "achieve at least 50% representation and meaningful participation of women in decision-making structures". This includes, inter alia, all spheres of government, private companies, nonprofit organisations, and even trade unions and political parties.
The bill gives power to the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities to issue compliance notices to entities that he or she believes are not complying with the legislation. If an entity fails to obey such a compliance notice its head or directors can be fined or even receive a prison sentence of up to 10 years if the fine is not paid.
Sandra Burmeister, CEO of Landelahni Recruitment Group, said the problem with the bill is that is does not distinguish between industries.
"The black economic empowerment [BEE] industry charters has set specific gender targets per sector. This allows industries to set realistic, achievable targets for sectors where there are simply not enough suitably qualified women," Burmeister said.
"A blanket target of 50% will pose difficulties for sectors where two-thirds of workers in their core business are technical - such as construction, infrastructure and mining."
Burmeister said SA has had progressive gender legislation for some time. This include BEE regulations, industry charters and the Employment Equity Act, which "all had a positive effect on increasing gender equity at every level of the organisation".
According to the Commission for Employment Equity's 12th annual report, released earlier this month, the representation of women in top positions increased from 13% in 2001 to 18.7% last year. The percentage of women in senior management increased from 21% to 27.7% and the percentage of women in skilled positions from 40% to 46.2%.
Women account for 45.4% of the economically active population, according to Stats SA, and according to labour minister Mildred Oliphant are still grossly under-represented in key areas of the labour market.
However, Burmeister said SA's legislative and regulatory framework has had a positive effect on gender equity.
"The question is whether we need more legislation," she said.
Gerald Seegers, human resources services director at PwC, said so far SA has done well by not using quotas for gender equality but benchmark percentages at best.
"If we ever do get a quota system it would be a mistake," he said. "Quotas could govern a particular behaviour, but you also have to be realistic in terms of looking at what is available [in the labour market]. Every industry is different. Women would prefer not to work in some industries. For example, not all women want to be mine bosses."
Seegers said gender equality in the workplace should be a behavioural issue and not a monitoring issue.
However, when the bill was published for comment last month, the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities once again made it clear in a statement that "the empowerment of women and gender equality cannot be left to market forces".
Cornelius Monama, the department's spokesman, said this week public inputs received were "generally in support of the draft bill" and would be considered for integration in the bill. After that the bill will be submitted to cabinet again, with a recommendation that it be introduced to parliament. Monama would not say when the department hoped the bill would be approved by parliament and take effect.
* This article was first published in Sunday Times: Money & Careers