Where are the women? In a female dominated sector of health and social development

South Africa scores poorly when it comes to the number of women in senior management roles. New research shows that women hold 28% of senior management roles in businesses with only 3% having a female CEO. This is 5% lower than the global average of 8% with 31% of SA companies having no women in senior management positions.

In South Africa the public health and social development industries are predominantly female. Paradoxically, union representation and shop stewards in the health sector are predominantly male.

Apart from well-known factors of why women don’t land top-level positions as readily as their male counterparts, such as family demands on women, ‘imposter syndrome’ where women underestimate their own abilities, and a patriarchal business culture, there are also industry-specific factors which play a role. In the nursing industry, for example, women tend to be more focused on following a linear career path, whereas men view the health care sector in its broadest sense and often make lateral career moves into the labour relations sector. Industrial and labour relations and trade unions have traditionally been male dominated sectors, and there is still little evidence of transformation.

One would expect to find more female representation in nursing and social development sectors as these are female dominated industries, and yet, with the mainly male dominated representation on councils the rights of women are not always placed at the forefront of the negotiations when entering into bargaining discussions with employers.

This is exactly what drove Suzan Ntlatleng, the oldest founding senior member of the HOSPERSA, since 1999, and council member of the Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council (PHSDSBC) to move from her career as social worker to becoming a shop steward, HOSPERSA, in the late eighties. Today Ntlatleng is the National Collective Bargaining Co-ordinator and the face of HOSPERSA members at PHSDSBC. At PHSDSBC Ntlatleng plays a role in Council meetings, Finance Committee (FINCOM), task teams and Labour caucuses. She also sits in the Chambers of the Public Sector Co-ordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC), represents members at the SA Vroue Federasie (SAVF) and serves on the SA Social Security Agency’s (SASSA’s) Employment Equity National Committee.

“It has been a long a journey, but I believe our journey as women in this sector is not yet over. If we want to be able to discuss matters that affect women, we need to have a seat at the table, at the very least,” Ntlatleng says. “I am not saying women’s issues are not addressed, they are, but there are matters which would be readily understood and resolved faster if we had better representation. Also, things might be brought to the table that hadn’t been considered before,” Ntlatleng argues.

Mpumelelo Sibiya, General Secretary from PHSDSBC also believes the landscape could look more diversified if more women held positions. “Biologically, women are more compassionate and tend to exercise more patience first. One can assume that if women were in the labour relations/shop steward roles, there would be greater consideration for the needs of the people they are representing – or something from thesis which ties in here.”

“It’s not easy for women to break the patriarchal approach to unions. As a council we need to encourage women to stand up, support each other and be represented – these industries need women at the front highlighting the rights of women,” says Sibiya.

One of the PHSDSBC’s goals is to create a beneficial working relationship between the employee and the employer, by coordinating negotiations between the government and the trade unions for better working conditions for the employee, so that the employee may perform optimally, for the employer’s benefit, and inadvertently for the public at large.

Those who work in the medical or social development workforce in South Africa, should feel secure in the knowledge that the PHSDSBC facilitates dispute prevention methods and engages in constructive collective bargaining, in order to foster labour peace in the public health and social development sectors.


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