The phrase "sleeping one's way to the top" is often used to explain how some women gain to access to or upward mobility in employment opportunities. While this phrase has been popularised globally and is used as a moral judgement almost exclusively towards women, it is a problematic framing of complex power dynamics which facilitate the exploitation, manipulation, and coercion of young women in exchange for economic opportunities.
In most countries, economic access and power remain unequally distributed along the lines of gender – with men often in top positions and women at the bottom. To imply that a power imbalance occurs where those at the bottom and on the peripheries (of these economic structures) abuse their power to exploit those at the top is a deliberate denial of the abuse of power by those willing to withhold access for sexual 'favours'. More importantly, these are not just moral failings of a few individuals – it is a system-wide, sector-wide phenomenon that permeates all industries, from entertainment, the service industry, academic, and other professional industries – across the formal and informal sectors.
It is a common misconception that gender-based violence only occurs in the home or public spaces such as streets, parks, and public transport. With the exception of unions and progressive human resource (HR) processes, many people do not consider the workplace as a potential site of gender-based violence because the common understanding of gender-based violence is often limited to physical assault, and verbal threats either within intimate relationships or from complete strangers.
These narrow definitions are problematic because issues such as harassment, bullying, sexual intimidation, and coercion are unfortunately common practices that create a hostile and intimidating work environment for workers and have a negative impact on the workers' well-being and their ability to work. Just a year ago, the Code of Good Practice on the Prevention and Elimination of Harassment in the Workplace (2022) (Code) was introduced nationally by the Department of Labour to address this. The Code expanded on the previous definition of workplace harassment which focused narrowly on sexual harassment. The new Code now defines harassment through various types of unwanted conduct which "impair dignity and which create a hostile or intimidating work environment" for workers.
More notably, these examples include a spectrum on forms of violence such as "physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, gender-based abused, and racial abuse". These adjustments are important for rooting out practices that allow for how workers to be victimised and manipulated in the workplace – especially young women who tend to have less experience, are often underpaid, and have little bargaining power.
The Code followed the monumental changes that were ushered in by the Criminal Law Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act – Amendment Act 13 of 2021. The Amendments have been welcomed by activists and civil society organisations as a step in the right direction for prioritising victim-centred and gender-sensitive provisions such as the new criminalisation of sexual intimidation. Sexual intimidation is the unlawful and intentional threat to an individual that makes them reasonably believe that a sexual offence will be committed against them or someone whom they are in a close relationship . Similar strides have been made at the global level – in 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established Convention No. 190 (C190) which provided international standards to enable countries to eliminate harassment and gender-based violence in the workplace effectively. It is encouraging to see that South Africa was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention as it provides even more extensive categories of work-related conditions in which workers are prone to violence.
As we continue to reflect on the plethora of challenges faced by young people across South Africa this Youth Month it is important to unpack the barriers that contribute to the plight of young people at the structural, institutional, and social levels. Statistics South Africa's Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) Q1: 2023 has consistently shown that young, black women remain the most vulnerable demographic, with unemployment being the highest among young people between the ages of 15-34, and the official unemployment rate being 4,7% higher among females (30,7%) than males (35,4%).
This shows that while unemployment is a huge problem, it is not simply due to a lack of skills and jobs. Still, there are serious gender disparities in unemployment that point to specific barriers faced by younger and female groups. These include structural injustices and harmful practices that contribute to keeping young women financially precarious, experiencing job insecurity, being underpaid, and being prone to gender-based violence. These barriers deter and shut out young talent from access and inclusion in economic participation.
Securing a future for young people to thrive requires dismantling these barriers and ensuring that employers in both the formal and informal sectors adhere to labour standards and codes of good practice. Furthermore, it requires investing in quality jobs with safe and fair working conditions, and professional environments that reward competency and provide opportunities for learning and advancing without fear of victimisation and exploitation. These are tangible efforts that can be made to address the structural violence perpetuated by the normalisation of discrimination and victimisation of young women in society.
The National Strategic Plan for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (NSP-GBVF) is another step towards undoing these harmful structures through its whole-of-society approach. The NSP-GBVF emphasises that all sectors of society must play a part in addressing gender-based violence. This means that businesses of all sizes need to not just address gender-based violence aesthetically through campaigns and hashtags and flashy, one-time events but through interrogating and updating their policies, their organisational cultures and support systems. Hence, it is imperative that there is a functioning mechanism to monitor and assess the implementation of these changes in workplaces to hold businesses accountable for this commitment.
As the process of establishing the National Council for Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (NCGBVF) slowly unfolds and the public makes its contributions to the Bill, it is essential that South Africans demand effective oversight to track the implementation of the plan across all sectors, especially the private sector. This will take the collective effort of advocates, activists, communities, psychosocial practitioners and other care service providers. Furthermore, the private sector must share this responsibility to implement and urge for strong oversight of the implementation of the NSP-GBVF through co-funding this process. It must also lead the implementation of transformative changes within their own institutions as it is an important vehicle for economic empowerment. It is a great task ahead but not impossible, if driven by clear leadership, strategic and transparent allocation of resources.