Nobel winner's story shows uphill battle for women

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Professor Gavin Keeton
Professor Gavin Keeton

By Professor Gavin Keeton, Associate Professor at Rhodes University


At the recent Jobs Summit, it was agreed that companies should annually disclose pay gaps between men and women employees.  Disclosure will initially be voluntary, but may become obligatory.

Disclosure in the UK, which is already compulsory for larger employers, revealed that in 2017 men on average earned 18% more than women.  The UK evidence suggests SA should extend reporting on pay gaps to government.  In the UK, 90% of public sector organisations pay men more than women.  On average their public sector pays men 14% more than women.

Gender pay differences are the result not only of men earning more than women in the same position, but also the preponderance of men in senior positions and of women in low-wage positions.  These differences persist even though women now make up almost half the workforce and more than half of university graduates in many countries. 

Academia is not exempt from gender discrimination.  2018 Nobel prize winner, Donna Strickland, is only the third woman ever to win the physics prize.  She has also yet to rise above associate professor at her university.  This has raised the question of what must women do secure full professor status? 

Analysis by Alice Wu of an online platform that allows US economists to post anonymously about job opportunities and economics topics revealed shocking use of sexist and demeaning language towards female economists.  The New York Times calls her findings evidence of a “toxic” environment for women in economics.

Rhodes University graduate student Siobhan Hitchcock looked recently at gender achievement in South African universities.  58% of students at Higher Education Institutions in SA are female and in 2016 women made up 62% of undergraduate and 57% of postgraduate qualifications awarded.  These shares are unusually high by global standards.

Before congratulating ourselves on having created a non-sexist SA, it must be remembered that the proportion of South Africans attending university is very low.  Only half the school-going cohort eventually writes matric and a much smaller proportion achieves the Bachelor Pass level necessary for university study.  The dropout rate is much greater for boys than girls and reasons for this need to be examined.  Stellenbosch University’s Nic Spaull has noted that the exceptionally poor performance of South African schoolboys starts very early.  SA came last in 2016 out of 50 countries in Grade 4 reading ability (8 out of 10 of our children cannot read for meaning) and the gender difference (in favour of girls in our case) was the second largest of all participating countries.

This clearly contributes to SA’s preponderance of female university students, but Hitchcock still finds evidence of lower female participation in business and commerce courses, as well as in science, engineering and technology.  Female participation also declines at postgraduate level in SA, despite the pass rate of women at university being higher than men.

One reason globally why women avoid certain university courses and fail to proceed to postgraduate study is the absence of female role models.  Hitchcock finds that women comprise 60% of the administrative staff, but just less than half the academics at SA higher education institutions.  Moreover, women’s share declines the more senior the appointment.  A sample of 5 Economics Departments reveals that only 31% of all academic staff are women, 29% of associate professors and just 16% of full professors.

South Africa’s education challenges are massive and very complex.  Improving overall performance at school should be declared a national emergency.  However, confronting these problems should not blind us to the need also to address the lower participation of women in important subjects and disciplines, their progress to postgraduate study, and why, despite their sustained higher performance throughout education, they earn less in the workplace. 

Addressing gender inequality is not just a matter of equity.   The IMF suggests it could significantly boost our GDP.  It is critical if we are ever to address the skills shortages which hamper our economic performance.



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