Challenging Gender Norms: the path to Women’s Economic Empowerment

Challenging Gender Norms: the path to Women’s Economic Empowerment

Is the transport industry in South Africa doing enough to uplift, empower, and support women? NICCI SCOTT-ANDERSON says considerable challenges remain, and that a lot more could be done…

In the quest for women’s economic empowerment (WEE), we are confronted with an undeniable truth: deeply ingrained gender norms significantly shape women’s access to economic opportunities. These norms dictate what is deemed acceptable for women in various aspects of life, from job choices to household responsibilities. However, unravelling and transforming these norms is essential, as it can lead to substantial improvements in women’s lives, well-being, and the broader economy.

Since March 2021, the Commercial Transport Academy has been designing and implementing creative and innovative programmes in the freight and passenger sector, with the aim of introducing sustainable solutions to drive women’s economic empowerment. One of these programmes, the Women Inspiring Women in Transport (WiWiT), is co-funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and forward-thinking partners from the private sector who have incorporated diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into their strategic organisational values. These partners include Hollard, Ctrack, Volvo Trucks, UD Trucks SA, Afrit Trailers, CTU, and several employer organisations. 

The Commercial Transport Academy has already empowered over 500 women to acquire a commercial driver’s licence, as well as participate in a high-impact technical and practical skills programme; 160 entrepreneurs have participated in a bespoke industry awareness and development programme; 110 women leaders have completed an international diploma in supply chain through a joint venture (JV) with the Chartered Institute for Logistics and Transport; and around 40 South African youth have completed their motorcycle licence, allowing them to participate in the e-commerce industry.

The Commercial Transport Academy will be applying for additional funding in 2024 to ramp up this programme through the implementation of phase two: to advance women in every category mentioned above. The question you should be asking is, why is this necessary? Surely the most capable and committed women from all these programmes have secured employment, contracts, or promotions? 

“The industry is making steady progress in absorbing women into the sector, but at a pace slower than hoped or anticipated, considering legislation is driving change,” says Cheryl Viljoen, national operations manager at the Commercial Transport Academy. “Additionally, the industry hasn’t been supportive of creating mentorship programmes to absorb women into roles in which they have not previously participated. Women are expected to operate at the same level as men without having had previous experience or systematic career development.”

The Commercial Transport Academy acknowledges that it has been impatient, but believes a higher uptake of women drivers and entrepreneurs by the industry could have been possible. It notes that – even though it has developed several comprehensive skills programmes with the support of USAID and the private sector, as well as received various endorsements from government (specifically the Department of Transport) – it constantly comes up against deeply ingrained gender norms. These impact the progression of women and youth, creating exponential barriers that are just too challenging and off-putting to push through.

The Impact of Gender Norms

Gender norms wield immense influence over our lives. They determine what we do, what we believe, and even what we consider appropriate. These norms extend to women’s roles and behaviours, often limiting their options and perpetuating inequalities. For example, the devaluation of care work, the prevalence of women in the informal sector, and stereotypes suggesting women’s inferiority all hinder women’s economic power.

Effective Strategies for Change

Recognising the power of gender norms is the first step towards change. A 2022 USAID study by Banyan Global, “Advancing Women’s Economic Empowerment: Social Norms Landscaping Study”, identifies several effective strategies to challenge these norms and advance women’s economic empowerment. However, organisations still need to demonstrate a commitment and desire to recognise the impact of gender norms when implementing strategies to diversify their workforce, in compliance with B-BBEE legislation; Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) objectives.

Gender norms shape societal roles and behaviours and must not be disregarded. Addressing these norms not only ensures legal and ethical alignment, but also unlocks the potential of diversity to drive innovation, enhance employee well-being, and contribute to SDGs and ESG goals. Most importantly, the Commercial Transport Academy’s partners come to the core realisation that by embracing gender-inclusive strategies, we empower women economically, fuel growth, and set in motion solutions to foster a more equitable future. 

Banyan Global, through its comprehensive study, uncovered a few proven and promising strategies that can be adopted and moulded by organisations to achieve the desired outcome: improved education and awareness of how gender norms continue to foster negative societal behaviours. These include:

  • Gender Analyses and Norms Diagnostics: Identifying and assessing the strength of norms is essential for developing targeted strategies to challenge them effectively.
  • Engaging Boys and Men: Encouraging positive masculinity and involving boys and men in promoting the equitable distribution of household tasks and decision-making is crucial for advancing gender equality.
  • Mass Media Campaigns: The use of various media platforms to change perceptions and beliefs about gender roles can broaden perspectives and encourage acceptance of new norms. Engaging the wider public through information campaigns and social marketing can help shift norms, especially when supported by policymakers and the private sector.
  • Training and Education: Combining economic-focused interventions with life skills training can empower women and delay early marriages.

The Commercial Transport Academy has played a supporting role to many organisations in finding creative solutions to incorporate more women into non-traditional occupations, using the mindset of “do no harm”. This recognises that every human resources department plays a crucial – if not pivotal – role in empowering employees (and especially leadership) to understand the negative impact of perpetuating gender norms. This applies even when done out of ignorance or the belief that one is being supportive. It is essential that in developing countries such as South Africa – where we are faced with so many societal challenges – organisations become more creative in driving training and awareness programmes that touch on topics such as unconscious bias, stereotypes, and the consequences of perpetuating gender norms. We need to actively create awareness campaigns using positive role models to change the narrative.

In the first quarter of 2024, the Commercial Transport Academy – in collaboration with FOCUS on Transport & Logistics, SaferStops Association, and corporate South Africa – is set to launch the inaugural “Family Day in Transport” initiative. During this event, proud moms and dads who work as commercial drivers will have the opportunity to bring their children or loved ones to work, fostering a day of family engagement and a deeper understanding of the pivotal role their family members play in the daily lives of all South African citizens who rely on truck drivers’ deliveries.

The primary goal of this initiative is to empower more young individuals to consider careers in the transport sector, igniting their passion for the industry. Simultaneously, we aim to elevate the status of truck drivers, instilling a sense of pride and admiration while dismantling stereotypes associated with traditional gender norms and roles.

A Call to Action

Challenging gender norms is fundamental to women’s economic empowerment. But this is not just about women… it’s about creating a fairer, more prosperous society for all. By implementing these strategies and embracing a culture of change, we can break free from the shackles of gender norms and pave the way for a more equitable, empowered future. It’s time for action and we encourage all HR professionals to reach out to the Commercial Transport Academy and get involved in some of the exciting initiatives that it is pioneering. Get creative, and remember: let’s evoke inclusive and positive change with the motto of “do no harm”.

Published by

Nicci Scott-Anderson

Nicci Scott-Anderson is a serial entrepreneur with a special passion for transport and logistics. She is the founder and CEO of the Commercial Transport Academy, which focuses on promoting gender diversity and equity in the South African trucking industry. Additionally, she is the CEO of Zolabix, a SANAS-certified body specialising in RTMS and compliance.
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