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#WomenofSU: Advancing gender equality and levelling the playing field for women in the workplace
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Alec Basson]
Published: 06/08/2020

​Women continue to get the short end of the stick in the workplace. Through her research, Prof Anita Bosch, holder of the Women at Work Research Chair at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, helps advance gender equality and level the playing field for women in the workplace.

As part of South Africa's Women's Month celebrations, she tells us about how her work is making a difference in the lives of women.

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research focuses on the intersection between gender and work, and I also aim to bridge the divide between academia and practice. I use a women's lens to view workplace phenomena in order to uncover new ways of introducing equality — the removal of subordination of women — and renewal into workplaces. When we view work from a woman's perspective, other life dimensions such as family and caregiving are easily introduced, as society allows us to associate these issues with women.

The same consideration is not always given to men. In this way my research is not only beneficial to women's workplace equality, but also to men. It is also so that women are viewed as an anomaly or that the social reproduction responsibilities that women have are not accepted at work. Issues such as maternity, caregiving, emotionality and feminine traits are not comfortably integrated with paid work. Joan Acker, a notable work-and-organisation feminist, stated that the workplace favours 'ideal' workers who are regarded as individuals that are disembodied, available 24/7, and without care obligations. This definition does not fit any human being; however it is an unspoken ideal that we have for employees and it is certainly a state of being that women cannot attain. Women are therefore by default not 'ideal' workers.

My research aims to question taken-for-granted assumptions about paid work, such as the 'ideal' worker, in order to uncover socially constructed impediments or unobserved and unfair workplace practices towards women. More recently my research has focused on policy interventions to initiate remedies towards workplace gender equality, such as gender pay transparency, so that employers and government can reconsider and replace limiting beliefs, practices and structures.  

Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?

I was trained in business science, more specifically in human resource management and organisational behaviour. I've always been intrigued about the functioning of businesses and how people make money. In the initial stages of my career I was fortunate to take up a number of positions that provided me with an opportunity to explore being part of a team and eventually to lead teams. In fact, I have been in leadership positions for more than 22 years and really enjoyed the excitement and thrill of doing my work well, learning and reaching goals.

In my early career, I did not believe in discrimination or barriers towards the advancement of women. I thought that I just had to work hard, put in the hours, get relevant experience, and then I would receive recognition in the form of job promotions. My opinion about this changed when I had to make a choice about starting a family. All of a sudden, I realised that I had to base my choices on different criteria than my male peers and that social expectations of me as a woman were indeed different from them.

I also noticed that, at work, I was held to the same criteria, structures, practices and standards as what they were, even though, as a grouping, my male peers' lives were structured very differently from that of their female peers. I felt cognitively trapped as I knew that men and women were treated in the same way, which I thought was fair since I believed that the way in which business and organisations operated was largely fixed. By implication, since my social reproduction roles were different from those of my male peers, I started wondering whether I was meant to be at work, or to do the jobs that men could.

Fortunately, my viewpoint changed when I started reading about the topic in order to make sense of my experiences. I came across the work of Joan Acker, Sandra Bem, Alice Eagly, Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí, Amandag Gouws, Dorit Posel, Evangelina Holvino and the very witty Gloria Steinem, to name a few. My awareness grew as I realised that workplaces are structured by human beings, and that the organising of work can indeed change without jeopardising the financial viability of an organisation. Researching gender and work in order to propose new ways of organising employment, became an ideal which was worth my effort and attention.

Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?

There's a lot of rhetoric about women and men's workplace equality in South Africa. Lots of misinformation. So, I think that for South African women specifically, its timely and important do work that leads to evidence and improved understanding. We do South African women a disservice if we don't engage intellectually with their lived experience at work. When there are inaccuracies circulating in the media and limited perspectives in academia, we polarise women and men and sow disaccord. At this point men usually start disengaging.

So I think, more broadly speaking, my research area is important because I don't want to keep polarising women and men with inaccurate information. I also don't want to polarise people by not acknowledging societal differences and the impact that these have on women's careers. In sum, I want to acknowledge the importance of women in the economy and the important role that they play in both business and society, in spite of the fact that their social roles are different from those of men. I want to ensure that women can participate fully in the economy without discriminatory impediments.

What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?

I've produced a great number of public reports to inform managers, leaders, employees and the general public of ways in which the workplace can incorporate gender equality. These reports reach consulting houses, companies and boardrooms. My teaching has also reached a great number of students who themselves hold important roles in the private sector. I was recently invited to make a presentation to the National Council of Provinces in Parliament about gender pay transparency mechanisms. I trust that the policy guidance that I provided may come to good use in future legislative changes. Gender equality is a life's work and therefore the greatest impact is yet to come.

Do you have any message for the next generation of women researchers?

What I can say is, if you are to enter the field of workplace gender studies, expect resistance. When you feel most discouraged, seek refuge, pull back a bit and regroup. You will feel the pressure and disapproval of many people and at the same time you will get support from many women. Your message may not necessarily be easily embraced. Also acknowledge that you don't know it all and that you might have a blind spot.  When this happens, retreat, listen and engage with the disruption, and after reflection, trust yourself. Once you do that, you come to respect diverse opinions and learn to treat others and yourself with dignity.