The gender pay gap has widened over the past few years, suggesting that fundamental issues need to be addressed long before women enter the workforce.

Not only are women paid less than their male counterparts in the same job but, throughout the world, women tend to be concentrated in support functions such as human resources or marketing rather than in core production roles such as engineering.

Sandra Burmeister executive search firm Amrop Landelahni says this is frequently due to outdated stereotypes, compounded by ‘soft’ educational qualifications.

Progress in the United States, United Kingdom and South Africa in closing the pay gap has stalled or slipped backwards over the past few years.

A recent International Trade Union Confederation report reveals that women’s wages have become “frozen in time almost everywhere”.

The research shows that, worldwide, women’s earnings are 18% on average less than men’s earnings across almost all occupations.

If this slow pace of change continues, it will take 45 years for women’s pay to reach parity with that of men,” says Burmeister.

Filling the rising gap

For the gender pay gap to narrow, salaries must rise faster for women than those for men. Unfortunately, the reality is that salaries tend to rise at the same rate, which has the effect of increasing the gap. However, it’s not a zero sum game. Gains for women should not mean losses for men.”

There has been some progress. The 2012 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report shows that the sub-Saharan Africa region has closed 66% of its gender gap, as measured by economic participation and opportunity, education, health and political empowerment.

On economic participation in particular, Sub-Saharan Africa performed well – just behind Europe, Central Asia and North America.

However, when it comes to education, Africa is the region with the largest gender gap, particularly concerning literacy and enrolment for tertiary education.

Of the 132 countries surveyed in the WEF research, the four Nordic countries, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, hold the top overall rankings and have closed more than 80% of the overall gender gap.

“These countries several decades ago reached close to 100% literacy for both sexes,” says Burmeister. “Gender parity has been achieved at primary- and secondary-school level and at tertiary level the gender gap has been reversed.

Education, work opportunities and the gender pay gap are inherently linked. A lack of formal education limits opportunities for women in the workplace, restricting them to lower paid jobs.

Women also need an education

There are positive signs in Africa and elsewhere that the expectations and mores of societies that currently place a higher value on the education of male children are changing.

Formal education for women is an essential stepping-stone to gender equality in the workplace.”

When it comes to women in senior management, SA at 28% compares well with the global average of 21%, according to a recent Grant Thornton survey.

However, even when women do advance through the executive pipeline they tend to get paid less than men for performing the same work.

Effectively, this means that women work for free for several months a year, while men work and are paid for a full year.

How an integrated approach is beneficial

We need to draw on the skills of both men and women to meet the challenges of today’s complex, volatile and uncertain business environment.

Research shows that women bring different approaches to business, which positively affects organisational performance and financial results.

Companies that have succeeded in reducing the gender gap in the workplace display an integrated approach across a range of initiatives.

They demonstrate a high level of management commitment, measure progress continuously, and implement programmes to change attitudes and counter inadvertent prejudice.

Amrop Landelahni

Amrop Landelahni is an executive search firm operating across the continent. Its services include executive and board search, consultancy and leadership assessments.