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Female entrepreneurship: Is South Africa winning the gender inequality struggle?

A round table discussion on what's holding women back, and what's needed to create more success stories


This article forms part of the Women's Month 2015 series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of August, will shine the spotlight on female business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

After more than 20 years of democracy, South Africa is still grappling with issues of gender inequality. While many strides have been made, the gap between male and female entrepreneurs continues to widen.

Despite the fact that women make up about 50% of the world population and 40% of the global workforce, they own only about 1% of the world’s wealth. Global statistics also reveal that women’s unemployment levels remain higher both in educated and less educated categories.

Not only does South Africa mirror these trends, but the full participation of women in the economy in the country is being eroded. The latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor statistics show that only 6.2 percent of South African adult women are involved in entrepreneurship, down from nine percent the previous year.

SME South Africa speaks to 5 influential women in business about the successes and challenges of female entrepreneurs in South Africa, and what can be done to overcome the societal barriers holding woman back.

Our panel of business leaders


What are your thoughts on female entrepreneurship in the country?

Matsi Modise - The state of entrepreneurship in the country is not great. We are even slower relative to the continental as well as global advancements. The situation is even worse for female entrepreneurs, and as a country there is still a lot of work to be done.

Gugu Mjadu -  South Africa is actively seeking to support women. We are seeing more female entrepreneurs in the media being celebrated however more still needs to be done to stimulate entrepreneurship amongst women as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report reported a drop in total early stage entrepreneurship in women from 9% in 2013 to 6,2% in 2014.

DJ Zinhle - It's a growing trend and it's really impressive what young women are achieving in business. They are working hard and creating a lot of jobs.

Annelise de Jager - I think we do a lot to empower women, to put the spotlight on women’s achievements and I celebrate that.


What has been your general experience as a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry?

DJ Zinhle - It's been challenging and exciting. There are a lot of opportunities for females however it requires us females to work ten times harder than our male counterparts.

Annelise de Jager - We’ve had problems. It’s not easy to get where I am at the moment – running a business in the current economy, fundraising in the current economic climate, working with NGO’s who are constantly in the circle of starvation. But the good days are much more than the bad days, and the difference that we make in people’s lives and in the lives of welfare organisations, the lives of the people that they serve, the lives of animals, the lives of people with disabilities and children, that makes up for any headache you might have had in the process of getting there.


Which would you consider the biggest challenges for female entrepreneurs?

Matsi Modise - The biggest challenges in terms of female entrepreneurship are the stereotypes on the roles of women in a democratic society that are still prevalent in society. There are the perceptions that women are not fit or capable to lead big corporations. We need to fix that in the country so we can see progress in involving women in the mainstream economy.

"Eradicate the cultural barriers so we do not discourage women from becoming entrepreneurs" - Gugu Mjadu

DJ Zinhle - Information and financing. There is still very little education available in this country about starting and running a business. A lot of entrepreneurs have to figure things out as they grow, which then affects our growth and productivity. Young people have a lot of amazing ideas for business but they don't know where to start and finding funding is almost impossible.

Amanda Patterson - I think the most important thing is to get a really good education. And that’s a problem, we know that in South Africa that education at school level is not as good as it should be. And we have huge problems within that.

Gugu Mjadu -  Family responsibility is counted as one of the barriers to women choosing entrepreneurship. Hence from an early age, family responsibilities should also be shared between girl and boy children as this will go a long way towards limiting family responsibility as a barrier to female entrepreneurship. Another key challenge which affects all genders is access to finance however this challenge is amplified in women as they have traditionally been disadvantaged from building up an asset base which they can pledge as owner's equity or collateral.


What should be done to overcome these challenges?

Matsi Modise - What we need to do is to expose young women to entrepreneurship. We need to change their mindset from that of being job seekers to being job creators. We need to start in the formative stages to instill a mindset of entrepreneurship.

Annelise de Jager - I think it starts with education. That’s where you plant the seed in terms of what you want to do. And I’m excited to see that the schools have got loads of programs that they didn’t have when I was there. I think the education system has caught on to it that we need to teach our children to be entrepreneurs. And just seeing what they do in the current school system I was very impressed. I think it’s awesome.

Gugu Mjadu -  I would say eradicate the cultural barriers so we do not discourage women from becoming entrepreneurs as we have traditionally done in the past and improve the education system to stimulate increased entrepreneurial choices. It is widely reported that many entrepreneurs start businesses in the fields where they have educational or work experience and as such from a young age families and teachers should encourage girl children to enter into the predominantly male dominated industries for their careers and to become entrepreneurs.

We need to continue to celebrate more female entrepreneurs and present them as role models in society so that the youth, particularly young women, can be inspired to choose entrepreneurship. We also have to ensure that female entrepreneurs have easier access to finance in order to start and expand their businesses. The creation of female targeted funds is one such way.


How has being a woman benefited your business?

Do you think we are getting closer to reaching our goals for gender equality or are we losing the battle?

DJ Zinhle - It's still going to take a long time to achieve gender equality but we are well on the way. I believe in women and do think they have so much to offer. Every woman deserves independence and I will play my part in making sure that at least a few women gain their independence and become a success. 

"I think there needs to be grace for women who are mothers" - Annelise de Jager

Annelise de Jager - Surely there’s a place for women in business. And you can just look around you to see all the amazing things that women are doing in business. Specifically in the NGO sector it’s mainly driven by women. And I’m not talking about women that didn’t have any other choice in life. I’m talking about educated, graduated, strong business women that are heading up some of the biggest NGO’s in the country. So it’s not that they are doing NGO work or charity work because they didn’t make it in the corporate world. A lot of them could make it in the corporate world if they chose to.


What changes would like to see happen that can make the business world more accessible and encouraging to female entrepreneurs?

DJ Zinhle - The education needs to change, we are raised to believe that the role of a woman is limited to certain things. Women are as capable as men and this needs to be the focus of our education, that women can be whatever they want to be.

Annelise de Jager - I think there needs to be grace for women who are mothers. I think it’s difficult because on the business side, I need you here, I need you to work on the business regardless of what’s happening, I need you to be here because there’s a job that needs to be done. But you’re not just a worker you’re also a mother. I think if there can be more grace, more ‘let’s meet each other halfway’ – "I won’t be able to come in to the office this week but I will work from home because I need to look after my child”. I think that’ll make it easier for women. 

Amanda Patterson - More effective communication within the entry into business structures like the procurement departments, the HR departments. If those people could effectively communicate, I think that business would be far easier to conduct. 

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