Tuesday, 22 May 2012 10:56

Women in the Zimbabwe Workplace

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Introduction

Gender issues have an important bearing on many spheres of life. These issues are known to play a key role in alleviating the socio-economic challenges that countries, particularly developing nations face. For instance, one of the Millennium Development Goals as proposed by the UN is solely based on achieving gender equality, acknowledging that gender equality is a cross cutting issue which can greatly assist in the reduction of poverty, ultimately encouraging economic growth and national prosperity.

According to the ILO, in 2002, women consisted of 40% of the world’s workforce and these numbers continue to rise as the stereotypical views of women being the housewife and men being the breadwinner are beginning to fade. However, not diminishing at the same pace is the idea that women assume the role of the primary caregiver of the children and take the role of managing household matters. As the survey reveals, this conflict is one from which the majority of working women’s challenges emanate from. In addition, power relations that exist between males and females are reflected by male dominance over women’s sexuality and the persistence of sexual harassment in the workplace is evidence of this.

The role of organisations in achieving gender equality can not be overlooked as the financial independence of women is often the key to solving most socio-economic challenges. Therefore, women accessing equal opportunities and decent working environments will have a positive impact on the psychological and financial wellbeing of women. Mismanaged gender relations can lead to psychological and physical consequences that adversely affect the productivity and commitment of employees. Not only are organisations obliged to ensure the wellbeing of individual employees for the sake of organisational effectiveness, but they also play a part in ensuring societal balance. Women being the main caretakers of children, the mother’s ability to successfully raise children will depend on what extent the mothers can manage their professional work and their motherly role. Social imbalances ultimately play a role in the economic stability of a nation and therefore for short term and long term considerations, businesses should ensure they play a part in addressing the challenges women face.

 

 

Difficult to balance work with motherhood or being a housewife/personal development

Most of the respondents who cited the challenge of balancing motherhood said it was difficult for their employers to show sympathy when their children were ill and they had to request leave time to attend to them. Besides children being ill, women faced difficulties in attending to children’s school functions and thus their relationships with their children were at times compromised. Mothers of young infants mentioned how their children were often difficult to manage due to their sporadic sleeping patterns and frequent ill health and women would often not get enough sleep during this time.  Many expressed that employers would not understand that it was the mother’s duty to do this as their working husbands would not be expected to leave work to tend to children’s needs. The result would be that women were often looked upon as not being committed to the organisation. The balance dilemma also applied to housewives who struggle to fully contribute to work with expectations from the spouse or family who would expect them to also perform household tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Many women mentioned they would often be tired and were deprived of sleep due to such situations.

Personal Development

Due to mothers and housewives failing to balance work with family life, this would also impact on their personal development where women having to tend to family could not partake educational activities. Some women mentioned not having enough time to pursue additional degrees and qualifications as their free time would be directed to the family. Some women expressed that this was the reason why they could not as employees be marketable and men most often had more attractive qualifications. Participants from previous study in New Zealand revealed that working fathers often spent their spare time on their own personal activities, while working mothers when given the opportunity would spend time on their children and family commitments.

Work Life Conflict

The dilemma of the work-life balance began to worsen as the general trend of men being the ‘breadwinners’ and females assuming the ‘housewife’ role began to fade. For women in developing nations where tradition and culture play a powerful role, women are often still expected to perform their domestic duties as well as contribute to the income generation. In western countries, these duties are becoming largely shared with men in Norway for instance, taking advantage of leave time.

Although past research has shown that women generally prioritize their families before their careers, this does not eliminate the need to achieve in their professions. From studies, the concept of work-life conflict has emerged. Work -life conflict is said to be caused when there are important tasks from the workplace and the household that need to be addressed at the same time. With increased work- life conflict, there is increased psychological discomfort in the employee and this will affect both productivity at work and family life of the employee.

Work- life conflict can be reduced by providing the individual with the opportunity to strike a balance between work and family life. For instance ‘flexitime’ or flexible working arrangements are being exercised in some countries which include rearranging working hours, incorporating part-time shifts, job sharing and tele-working. These strategies aim to create a family friendly working environment where women can work from home or can be relieved when not present. Fleixtime has been linked to retention and more positive attitudes amongst employees. However, Zimbabwe still poses a great challenge where organisations may not be financially equipped to fully implement such activities.

Zimbabwean women are at a disadvantage in comparison of mothering women in other countries. For instance, France’s childcare policy greatly benefits French women. In 2006, the French government provided a three-year paid parental leave where women would be guaranteed job protection upon returning to the organisation; full-time preschool beginning at 3 years, subsidized daycare before the child’s third year; pay for home child minders and monthly childcare allowances that increased with the number of children per family. However, the interesting aspect from France is that its institutions support the idea of women having children and also being employed. Their national policies are therefore designed to give women the choice to work and also have children of their own. Although most African countries traditionally value child bearing, the same cannot be said for the state’s institutional support for women to work. Ultimately, women are under pressure to fulfill the role of the mother and in most cases, to be an income earner.

Despite the existence of organisational and legal policies concerning maternal issues, women are indirectly discouraged to use them. Studies have shown that women who make use of such services are considered not to be serious team players. Thus it may be considered that flextime strategies and gender policies although helpful, often perpetuate some of the gender equalities, as they may result in women as being an inconvenience.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment was the second most common challenge women in Zimbabwe were facing in the work place. Within this challenge, women faced various forms of abuse including verbal abuse where males in the workplace would often make ‘dirty’ jokes about them to more serious offences such as male colleagues, in particular superiors, expecting sexual favors from female employees. Denial of such favors would result in some form of victimization, for instance not being promoted.  Many expressed that it was difficult to report such incidences as it was difficult to provide proof while some respondents expressed that such cases were not reported because the victims would fear losing their jobs.  Such sexual harassment was not only confined to fellow colleagues but male clients were also accused of making sexual advances and in some cases, this was ignored by their employers in the hopes of maintaining good customer relations. Of interest were the personal assistants and secretaries who expressed that they were viewed as unintelligent sexual objects by some of their bosses.

There is no doubt that sexual harassment is a global phenomenon. The ILO describes sexual harassment as the “unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with the individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, abusive or offensive working environment.”  The effects of such abuse results in emotional and psychological consequences including feelings of humiliation and anger and in extreme cases, it has led to victims committing suicide. For the employer, effects from such abuse have been employees with low levels of concentration and motivation, sometimes leading to increased accidents and ultimately costs alluding to absenteeism. For women, such cases dissuade them from applying for certain jobs particularly in male dominated environments which often offer high paying and high status jobs.

Although most organisations have policies dealing with gender issues in the workplace, some of these policies are not well communicated to employees. In a study done in Singapore, 7 out of 10 employees were unaware of the policies dealing with sexual harassment in their organisation. It would be the duty of senior members to communicate such a message. Unfortunately, this may not often be the case because as most women in the survey expressed, many of the perpetrators were in fact male superiors. The issue of clients also partaking in offensive sexual advances is also important for organisations to consider as they would need to ensure that policies clearly outline how employees would be protected from such behaviour from individuals not employed by the organisation.

Research indicates that women in male dominated industries or where a large number of women are being supervised by men are likely to have the highest reports of workplace sexual harassment. In addition, in cases where women have little or no job security, women are likely to experience sexual harassment. Finally, service industries such as the hospitality industry where employees must interact with various types of clients are likely to also reflect high reports of sexual harassment.

Being Taken for granted

Women who expressed this issue raised various issues including the fact that their views were not taken seriously in meetings and being given stereotypically female tasks despite their qualification.

Women’s opinions are not being valued and many women expressed that most of their input would be viewed with skepticism or would simply not be acknowledged during meetings. Mentioned countless times was the fact that women despite their positions in the organisation would often be allocated tasks that were considered traditional female tasks. For instance, they expressed that they would often be allocated the role of recording minutes during meetings, making tea or ushering guests or visitors around the workplace.

Single, Widowed, Pregnant status considered unreliable

The most frequent challenge faced by women when looking for employment were those who were single, widowed and pregnant.

Women who were single expressed that some interview panelist discriminated against unmarried women as married women were assumed to be more mature. Being single it seemed that they were somewhat unreliable. For those who faced traditionally minded interviewers, being widowed was looked upon with skepticism. Those who mentioned that they were widowed had the perception that the interviewers probed why they were widowed and often showed mistrust at their widowed status. Women who were pregnant or planning to get pregnant were often disadvantaged at the interview. Most women expressed that merely walking into the interview room as a pregnant woman immediately resulted in them losing the job opportunity.

Pregnancy and employment

Pregnancy discrimination is when women are treated differently because of pregnancy related conditions. Globally, women are being discriminated against at the selection process where interviewers do not hire the women or are deprived of sick leave or leave pay. Organisations avoid employing pregnant women for various logistical reasons including the fact that women would require maternal leave and there after would need to rearrange their work times to breastfeed and tend to children’s welfare. Unfortunately many women in Zimbabwe seek employment during this time as evidenced by the survey probably due to the fact that both the male and female are responsible for income generation. At times of course, there are cases where women are single parents and desperately need a source of income. Again, the contradiction is again evident where the dominant thinking is that women should continue to be child bearers but must also contribute to income generation. It is difficult then for women to play their roles as child bearers and also make use of such opportunities. In such a case, women are left with few options. This challenge is of grave concern at the moment with job market being so competitive; women who are not pregnant are likely not to be hired.

Sexual harassment during job seeking

Employment seeking women expressed many forms of sexual harassment ranging from interviewers suggesting that they would only be employed if they had sexual relations with them to being relocated or fired for not providing sexual favors. Women expressed that the interview panel would not consider their qualifications but based candidates on the likelihood of sexual interactions with those women. Women would feel uncomfortable and receive sexually suggestive gazes from interviewers. Some included the fact that marital troubles often motivated men to make sexual advances at them during the interview. This particular form of sexual harassment is more difficult to solve as these women who are not yet employed are more vulnerable to such advances. Unlike those women protected by the organizational gender policies, these women will find it difficult to report such cases.

Preferential Treatment for men

Women mentioned that men would often get preferential treatment during the selection process. In this sense, they referred to the fact that sometimes women would be informed that the position was in fact reserved for a man and including women in the selection process was thus a formality.

Observations and recommendations

This survey exposed the many challenges that working women face on a day to day basis and also reveals that women are not experiencing equality in the workplace. The work-life balance is the biggest challenge for working women as this reason is linked to most of the challenges they face. Women who have to tend to the family are perceived as not being committed, are thus not given opportunities for advancement, are in most cases at the lower level of the organisation and therefore have less decision making power in the organisation. Such conditions perpetuate the idea that women are not capable and thus the under-lying gender biased assumptions continue to exist in organisations that claim to be gender neutral.

Flexitime working strategies in Zimbabwe are questionable in this economic environment as the country has not fully taken advantage of various teleworking tools due the costs and logistics involved. In addition, with high unemployment and few jobs, women experience high job insecurity and are likely not to compromise their employment and make use of such benefits.

Sexual harassment continues to be a challenge for both working women and those looking for employment. This is mainly attributed to the fact that what is considered as ‘sexual harassment’ is not widely understood and communicated. The women in this survey explained that most advances came from their senior colleagues and therefore those who are meant to be communicating acceptable behaviour are usually the perpetrators themselves!

Some best practices include the company clearly outlining what constitutes as sexual harassment, outlining both formal and informal procedures in dealing with such cases and the possible consequences if such behaviour should persist. Shell Singapore encourages employees to take a written account of the behaviour for the sake of providing proof. In addition, the definition of “workplace” is clearly explained to accommodate the cases where employees may not necessarily work at a desk and therefore, employees are protected from any work –related sexual harassment.  Mckinsey Singapore has created women initiatives where female employees have a platform to discuss women specific issues including work-life balance and sexual harassment so as to ensure a collective problem solving approach.

Pregnancy is evidently still a pressing issue. Pregnancy has been described by some as a time when women are temporary disabled and thus just as moves have been made to avoid discrimination against the mobility impaired, the same efforts need to be made towards protecting women during this time. The economic and social strength of a nation heavily depends on the population which is ultimately regulated by women and is largely cared for by women. Therefore, businesses that discriminate against women during such a crucial period are likely to ultimately adversely affect the future of the national workforce.

Organisations in Zimbabwe therefore need to take steps in ensuring that their policies become practical. Some researchers have recommended dissecting various aspects of the organisation, identifying the taken for granted assumptions that relate to gender, and reconstructing them in order to compliment the policy. For example, the reward system may outwardly appear to be fair, but once closely viewed, it may be discovered that male characteristics are valued and in fact men are advantaged. In the same breath, male managers and supervisors need to be specifically trained to fully understand the challenges that women face in terms of work/life balance and their biological differences. Organisations in the UK that are awarded according to their commitment to achieving work life balance  have designed toolkits for supervisors and managers to receive the correct information and approach such cases in a systematic and fair manner. Such training assists superiors to be humane as well as ensure that organisational effectiveness is not compromised.

At national level, as has been noted by the French example, the state has an important role to play. Besides ensuring that gender related laws are adhered to, it can influence the gender roles in society. With regards to sexual harassment, the state can strengthen and improve on existing policies concerning such issues and create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated.  Pressure from the government would force organisations to take greater care in ensuring a safe working environment.

Since tradition and culture still play a great role in gender relations in Zimbabwe, traditional leaders may be incorporated to communicate messages that encourage improved gender relations within households and ultimately in other social spheres. The health sector, as it has just began in maternal health, must encourage the involvement of fathers in the health of their children as opposed to leaving this role exclusively to the mother. Education is an important variable in the challenges that women face and government must aim to ensure that the girl child is socialized towards the previously male dominated subjects and careers. This would, in the long term, ensure greater representation in more industries. Trade unions must also be a vehicle for change to ensure that women’s rights in the workplace are maintained and upheld.

Lastly and just as importantly, working women must contribute to their own emancipation. From the survey results, it is clear that women are at times their own worst enemies. Women in organisations are said discriminate against other successful women while some women indulge in sexual behaviors in order to advance in the organisation, thus setting a standard for women in the workplace. Ultimately, these behaviour perpetuates the stereotypes that affect all women working in that environment. Women in workplaces should actively unite to discuss how they as colleagues will tackle the imbalances in the workplace and thus women’s struggle for equality is approached in a unified manner.

Conclusion

As this survey and past research indicates, gender equality in the workplace is an issue that requires efforts from various stakeholders in society. At times, the struggle to achieve equality seems far off and impossible due to the deeply rooted beliefs that may take generations to change. However, very encouragingly, great strides have been made over the years to achieve some equality and women today are far better off than women in the previous century.

The organisation has a social responsibility to ensure gender equality, not only for the sake of organizational effectiveness and its own survival but for the improvement and wellbeing of its citizens at present and in the future.  Efforts from the national level right down to the individual level need to be made in order to address the challenges that women face.

 


 

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 May 2012 12:52

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