THE recently tabled Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Bill is at best a misguided attempt by the Department for Women, Children and People with Disabilities to gain relevance, and at worst a case of silly social engineering.

The heavily redrafted bill, which calls for half of the people who make up "decision-making structures" (whatever they may be) in both the public and private sectors to be women, was tabled in Parliament last week. While the bill may seem an exercise in fairness and redress, it — and indeed the department in general — miss the point that equality is not equity. Men and women are fundamentally different, especially in that women carry the burden (and blessing) of reproduction.

The time women take out from their careers or education during pregnancy, birth, and while their children are small has a measurable effect on their career trajectories. By law in this country, women are not allowed to return to work within six weeks after the birth of a child, but many choose to take far longer, to the benefit of their children.

Others have very little control over their family role and are forced out of schooling or employment to care for family members. For the majority of South African women, where physical and sexual abuse are depressingly common, reproductive rights remain largely in the male domain. The bill reveals how intensely middle-class the ruling party is.

Insisting that women fulfil half of all positions in decision-making structures ignores the many physical, social and structural obstacles that keep women out of these positions. It is a bit like imposing quotas on Springbok rugby without at the same time directing resources towards improving the quality of township and school rugby.

On a practical level, if it were to become law, the bill would add a lot to corporate and governance costs. Due to existing structural inequalities, women capable of filling these senior positions are in scarce supply, and as a result would command a premium over their equally qualified male counterparts. Moreover, in those cases where there isn’t a suitably qualified woman for the position, companies would have to provide additional support. This bill is yet another example of too little thought being given to the unforeseen consequences of thoughtless policy-making.