Women account for half of the population in Africa and are considered internationally as one of the pillars of economic development. Over the years, there have been active efforts to address the issue of gender disparity in Africa, and the progress is quite commendable. For instance, Africa is currently a global leader in Women’s public leadership and has the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs globally. 

However, much still needs to be addressed compared to the rest of the world. For instance, Women in Africa remain underrepresented in the workforce. According to the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, only 24.3% of African company board seats are held by women. Also, in Africa, only 24% of parliament seats (close to the global average) are occupied by women, with only two regions (Southern and East Africa) largely accounting for Africa’s high rates of women representation. 

It’s also worth noting that the Covid-19 pandemic caused significant social and economic changes at a breakneck speed. Consequently, it accelerated gender inequalities whereby women were most affected, especially in the Sub-Sahara Africa region. For instance, women saw a substantial fall in working hours compared to men; therefore, they suffered the most in income losses. Let’s explore the challenges they face and possible solutions. This article also outlines some initiatives and success stories that promote gender equality and empower women in their careers within Africa.  

Challenges Women Face in African Workforce 

  • Fewer employment opportunities for women 

Unemployment is an overall challenge that stretches across the entire African continent. However, from a gender point of view, 2022 statistics show that the female unemployment rate was at 8.7% while that of males was at 7.4%. While searching for work, barriers for young women are often higher and harder to overcome in most industries. Also, women tend to be over-represented in occupations perceived as unskilled or low-value. 

While the root of this challenge is linked to social norms, such as pressure to conform to gender roles, other fundamental factors like lack of education and proper training have a significant impact too. 

  • The gender pay gap and underpayment 

Like other parts of the world, women in Africa earn less than men. While the average global gender pay gap stands at 20%, in some countries like South Africa, it stands between 23% and 35%, which signals an extreme gap. 

The Sub-Saharan region is also widely affected by the same issue, derailing economic growth. A recent study showed that women earn 40-46% less than men in urban areas, and most women in rural areas are overrepresented in self-employment. 

  • Gender-based violence 

Women and young girls in Africa are often exposed to some form of workplace gender-based violence (workplace incivility, bullying, sexual harassment, etc.), affecting their mental, physical, and social health. For instance, women working in low-skilled jobs in male-dominated sectors have higher chances of experiencing bullying or harassment

However, the worst part is that such women are reluctant to report such incidents at work due to fear of victimization, especially when the perpetrator is someone in a position of authority. It’s due to the fear of losing their jobs, poor workplace grievance filing mechanisms, and fear of victimization. 

One of the most recent cases was uncovered by BBC, whereby it aired evidence of sexual exploitation of women by tea farm managers and supervisors of Unilever and James Finlay & Co. in Kericho and Bomet counties in Kenya. 

  • Underrepresentation in education, particularly in STEM fields

Statistics show that more women and girls participating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) studies and careers still need to be higher than men. Stereotypes and biases in tertiary education discourage women from pursuing STEM careers. Also, women already in such fields often face discrimination in the workplace, thus causing attritions from such occupations. 

Additionally, women in STEM jobs are paid less and progress less in their careers than their male counterparts. 

Possible Solution to Challenges Women Face in African Workforce 

  • Legal Measures to protect women’s Rights in the labour market

More legal measures are needed to protect women and opportunities for women in workplaces. Some African governments constantly review and improve such policies in their labour laws. However, particular areas need more attention. For instance, legislators can clarify laws protecting women against sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Formalizing jobs in the informal economy, where most African women dominate, would also significantly impact. 

Also, having policies that guide government and private agencies to provide equal employment opportunities would help more qualified and competent women and girls secure jobs in various industries. Laws promoting women’s economic inclusion are pretty important. 

  • Invest in women 

There are several ways to invest in women as empowerment to drive economic growth in Africa. First, young girls and women must get education, training, and economic opportunities. This is the most effective means to reduce the job inequalities between women and men in the African workforce. Another thing that would help is to create more avenues/networks where women can access financial services such as bank loans, grants, and private equity funding to fuel the growth of their businesses. 

  • Women leaders should support other women

Women in leadership have an opportunity to support their fellow women in the African workforce. Apart from mentoring young girls, they could also use their positions to ensure women’s ideas are heard and promote policies that enable women to thrive in their workplaces. 

  • Dismantle gender stereotypes in male-dominated fields

One way to curb the challenge of women’s underrepresentation in specific jobs and academic disciplines like STEM is by addressing gender stereotypes. After figuring out factors that limit women from pursuing their careers in such fields, the next step entails developing gender-sensitive policies that encourage more women to dip a toe into male-dominated fields. 

Initiatives that Promotes Gender Equality and Empower Women in their Careers 

  • Development Finance Corporation (DFC) 2X Women’s Initiative 

The U.S. DFC has been a key player in promoting equity and equality for girls and women in Africa and worldwide. In 2022, DFC, through their 2X Women’s Initiative, announced $15 million equity meant to support women-led high-impact technology companies across Africa, a $20 million loan to provide financing for agricultural inputs in Sub-Sahara Africa focused on female farmers; and a $25 million investment to support women-led SMEs in West Africa. 

  • Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment (AGILE)

AGILE is a program by the World Bank that aims to empower girls to access and complete secondary school education in Nigeria and fulfil their human potential. Through a collaboration with the Nigerian government, AGILE has rehabilitated and constructed schools, improved safety conditions around schools, delivered digital skills training, etc. All these efforts aim to help girls gain education and valuable skills for the job market. 

  • ILO TVET partnership programs and projects 

The International Labour Organization has been a critical player in supporting TVET programs in Africa. Additionally, it has been campaigning for social inclusion in TVETs to ensure more female youths and persons with disabilities also participate in TVET-related courses. For instance, through the PROSPECTS partnership in Kenya, ILO has been proactive n identifying discrimination and addressing inequalities in its intervention targeting Turkana and Garissa counties. 

  • Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR) Mentoring Programme

WISCAR mentoring program is structured to provide career advice, inspiration, guidance, and support to young career women helping them unleash their full potential and achieve their objectives. 

  • African Women Rising Initiative 

African Women Rising Initiative is a program set up by the European Investment Bank (EIB) to support selected financial intermediaries in designing, establishing, and promoting financial services better tailored to the needs of women entrepreneurs in Africa. It also offers mentoring and networking support to women entrepreneurs to facilitate access to financial services. A notable case is their $24.6 million investment in Alitheia IDF, one of Africa’s largest women-led private equity firms. 

Other remarkable programs or initiatives that empower African women, including supporting their work, include The African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), UN Women, etc. 

Final Thought 

Despite the continued efforts to address the gender gap and inclusivity in the African workforce, much is needed. Women still struggle with challenges such as gender-based violence at work, underpayment, and career stereotypes. To address such issues, governments and labour unions/ agencies across Africa ought to make policies that give men and women equal opportunities in the labour market.  

Here is the big question: are women in Africa ready to put in the work to play at the same level as their male counterparts? Over the years, ambitious women have proven it’s doable and excelled in their careers in the public and private sectors.