International Womens Day celebration at the NIOH press for progress


The National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH) joined people around the globe in celebrating Inter-national Women’s Day on 8 March 2018. This day also commemorated the NIOH’s 3rd anniversary of the Gender, Health and World of Work (Gender@Work) Programme, which was initiated by Dr Sophia Kisting, to address gender equity and gender mainstreaming in South African workplaces.

Over the past year, there has been an increased focus on issues of gender disparity in the workplace. The #MeToo movement, for example, galvanised action against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, so much so that the Time magazine ‘Person of the Year 2017’ award was given to the ‘Silence Breakers‘ who helped to champion the movement. This has led to numerous resignations and much litigation, proving that awareness and reporting of such victimisation in the workplace can bring about real change.

In line with this, the NIOH’s International Women’s Day event aimed to create an open forum for discussion about workplace gender issues that are often brushed under the carpet and go unchallenged. It aimed to raise awareness of disparities in workplaces, in an attempt to find solutions collectively to bring about more gender-equitable workplaces, where men and women can contribute and thrive.

The event was opened by Mrs Violet Gabashane, National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) Senior Manager of Monitoring and Evaluation (on behalf of the NHLS CEO), and guests were welcomed by Dr Sophia Kisting, NIOH Executive Director. Both speakers emphasised the need to speak openly about challenges of gender mainstreaming, and highlighted the threat of silence to compounding problems experienced by both sexes within the workplace.

Ms Lebogang Ramafoko, Soul City CEO, stressed that, despite the Bill of Rights, the Employment Equity Act and our progressive legislation, women still do not enjoy the freedoms that are enshrined in our Constitution and written in our laws. They continue to be victims of sexual violence, to earn less than their male counterparts, to head poorer households, and to spend large proportions of their own money on their children, while taking on the lion’s share of duties in the home.

The burden that women face is compounded by their high prevalence of illness: women have a statistically higher burden of chronic diseases and HIV, as well as injuries, than men. The proposed solution was an urgent change in the narrative of gender norms in our society; a change that should be undertaken on both individual and society levels, to ensure that the barriers to women fully enjoying their rights are lifted.


From L to R: participants networking with Redha Ameur (ILO); Sr Goitsimang Buffel (NIOH); Ms Lebogang Ramafoko (CEO, Soul City); Dr Sophia Kisting (Executive Director, NIOH); and Naledi Mangqalaza (NIOH)  Photograph: Mr Guy Hall



Mr Redha Ameur, from the International Labour Organization (ILO), spoke on ‘Care work and the care economy in a changing world’. Care work is defined as work within the home or community, including personal care for children or for aging or ill adults, as well as household maintenance duties. Mr Ameur highlighted the fact that these duties are often provided by women, particularly poor women, frequently as an unpaid, added responsibility.

A suggested solution to these challenges is the introduction of transformative care policies which include leave policies (e.g. parental leave), care services (e.g. early childhood development and care), social protection and cash transfers (e.g. childcare grants), flexible work arrangements (e.g. teleworking and flexitime), and infrastructure policies (e.g. sanitation and delivery of water to homes).

Prof. Himla Soodyall addressed the topic of ’Safeguarding Africa’s scientific future through science, technology and innovation: education of women and young scientists’.

She reported that, within academia, female academics tend to drop out after postgraduate studies while males are more likely to move into senior academic professions. Recognition of this trend led to the establishment of the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD) which aims to address these challenges through training, research and networking opportunities for women scientists. Prof. Soodyall concluded her talk by reiterating that, to tackle the challenges that women face in the scientific community, there needs to be greater focus on adaptation, remaining relevant, and ensuring open communication.

Advocate Michelle Odayan spoke about ’Solutions for gender- based violence in workplaces’. She stressed that solutions include a shared ownership of the problem, and that collective action is needed to address our core values and culture around what is tolerable. We need to change from talking to action which, in turn, needs to be visible, with vigilant measurement and impact evaluation. This should be vigorously maintained to ensure that the changed outcome is sustained. She emphasised that, within workplaces, a zero-tolerance policy framework to gender-based violence should be the objective. This starts with committed leadership and a planned approach with a few targeted outcomes. Effective communication strategies should follow these policies, together with regular training to nurture a safe workplace where gender-based issues are openly discussed.

Mr Dumisani Rebombo, the manager of community education and mobilisation of SONKE Gender Justice, shared a video clip entitled ‘Pretty girl’ which depicted a young man addressing a young woman in a very inappropriate manner. Following this, he told an impactful and moving personal story of changing societal norms and behaviours in order to bring about gender equity.

Mrs Nkhensani Masekoa of the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) discussed initiatives to address the challenges faced by women in mining, in line with the goals of the Culture Transformation Framework, to eliminate racism, genderism and any forms of unfair discrimination within the South African mining industry. In addressing the challenges of protecting the health and safety of women in mining, the MHSC is focussing on personal protective equipment for women, best-practice guidelines to ensure safety and security of women, and sexual harassment awareness programmes for miners.

Mrs Jacintha McLeod (Naidoo), who previously worked as a senior manager at the Railway Safety Regulator of SA, and is currently managing ‎Nanyata Siyaya Holdings (a health and safety consultancy company), spoke on behalf of women in railway safety in South Africa. She stated that, while many women contribute to the railway sector, more representation is needed at all levels as a matter of good business practice. Strategies to attract more women to the railway industry should be implemented in both the recruitment and succession planning stages, and should include a platform for women to talk, structured succession programmes, opportunities to highlight female role models and communicate their successes, flexible work structures, job rotation opportunities, and ongoing measurement of goals.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion facilitated by Mr Simphiwe Mabhele of the ILO. The topic of discussion was ‘Decent work and care work in a changing world’. This discussion took cognisance of the additional burdens on women that often widen the equity gap in the workplace. It was recognised that solutions are urgently needed in this area if we are to reach SDG 5, which relates to gender equity.

Panellists included role-players from organised labour federations, employer organisations and government departments. Representations were made by the Department of Labour (DoL), Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), Business Unity South Arica (BUSA) , Black Business Council in the Built Environment (BBCBE), the Chamber of Mines (CoM), and Solidarity Trade Union.

The three main questions that the panel members considered were:

1. What constitutes care work in your sector/ industry of work?

2. Is care work widening the gap between women and men in paid employment in South Africa?

3. Are there policy solutions that can be developed and implemented within your sphere of influence that would decrease this gap; in a way of progressing towards delivering on the relevant Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely SDG 3 (Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing); SDG 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and SDG 8 (Decent work and economic growth)?

The Panel made several pertinent points around care work. It was acknowledged that care work cuts across all sectors of the economy in South Africa – formal and informal – and impacts on gender equality; and that it is even more pronounced in rural than urban settings. Male-dominated industries (mining and construction) were commended on their efforts to ensure greater female representation, but were also encouraged to redouble their efforts to reach more female employees, so that the industry’s gender targets are exceeded.

Moving forward, it was strongly agreed that more policies and guidelines to address gender equity issues are needed, so that all workers can be protected. It is also imperative that these policies be properly implemented. One such policy gap relates to childcare at work. Important next steps for business include establishing crèches and nursing rooms within places of employment. These and other efforts could decrease the care burden of parents and improve the work/life balance of all employees.

In summary, changes have been made to address several gender equity issues within the employment space, but much more can be done. The development and implementation of policies aimed at protecting and promoting women employees is essential to the realisation of gender equity, as envisioned in SDG 5. This requires a concerted effort to translate discussion points into effective action.

The NIOH sincerely wishes that the dialogue will continue to grow with old and new stakeholders, as we join the ‘silence breakers’ globally to work towards gender equity and decent work for all.

Report by:

Odette Volmink, National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH)



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