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South Africa: Online Debate Rages Over Women’s Participation in the Workforce

On one side, individuals argued that "women's participation in the workplace not only affords them independence but also proves that they are just as capable as men in completing tasks."

In South Africa, the online conversation surrounding women’s participation in the labour force is heavily polarised, according to a new report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC).

The report Labour Force Equality: Perspectives and Stereotypes analysed social media discussions in South Africa from January 1 to March 31, 2024, capturing over 150,000 mentions.

On one side, individuals argued that “women’s participation in the workplace not only affords them independence but also proves that they are just as capable as men in completing tasks.”

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The report identified two major peaks in the online conversation. The first occurred on March 5, 2024, following an incident involving the  Economic Freedom Fighter

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MP Naledi Chirwa, who was instructed to apologise and purchase party merchandise for missing a budget speech due to caring for her sick child. This sparked criticism that the EFF was “punishing” women employees for being mothers.

According to reports, Chirwa admitted that she did not inform the Chief Whip about her absence but instead informed the party. She clarified that her apology was not for being a mother but for not following the correct procedure to apologise.

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South Africa women in construction

The second peak on March 13 was driven by the aforementioned viral TikTok video promoting anti-feminist views. Some believe that women are psychologically manipulated into thinking they want to work, as stated in a popular 10-minute TikTok video. The video promoted manosphere tropes, claiming that “most women did not want to work; that they were not equally intelligent as men, and that their entrance to the workforce was the result of feminist propaganda designed to ‘trick’ women into believing that working is empowering.”

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“The manosphere describes an online network of accounts, sites, and forums, among other platforms, that seek to speak out against the empowerment of women, promoting sexist and anti-feminist views,” reports CABC.

“The manosphere is a diverse collection of websites, blogs, and online forums promoting masculinity, misogyny, and opposition to feminism”

Researchers also noted polarisation around the definition of work, with debates over unpaid care work and sex work. Some people supported the decriminalisation of sex work and the reduction of stigma associated with it, while others believed that any legitimization of the sex industry would indirectly promote involvement in sex work.

As one individual stated, “Men and women should contribute equally to household chores if they are both employed.” However, others argued that “any formalisation of the sex industry would tacitly encourage individuals to engage in sex work.”

The CABC report attributes the polarised conversation to “differing values about traditional and religious assumptions around gender roles.” It proposes strategies such as providing factual information to deconstruct harmful perceptions, promoting conversations about unpaid care work, and promoting diverse understandings of “family” and women’s independence.

According to the report, one individual implied that the equal distribution of household chores was justified since lobola was only paid by the man. The debate continued to include differing perspectives on who, between men and women, had a bigger load of responsibilities to carry in a relationship.

As the online debate continues to rage, the report highlights the deeply entrenched societal divisions surrounding women’s roles and their participation in the workforce.

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