What’s a Smurfette to do?

I came across an article I wrote for True Love magazine in 2011. I am reposting it because I am wondering if there’s been much change.


A friend of mine recently shared a disturbing conclusion at a dinner party. She is a Smurfette. A Smurfette, or more precisely Smurfette, seeing that there is only one, is the female Smurf. My friend, Muntu, does not have blue skin, flowing blonde locks, nor would she ever be caught dead wearing white heels, but in the way that counts the most, she is Smurfette. Smurfette is, incredulously, the only woman in Smurfville amidst a substantial population of male Smurfs. Similarly my friend, Muntu, is the only female member of her employer’s executive team.

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When I last watched the Smurfs there were scant indications that Papa Smurf was looking to increase Smurfville’s female population. It appears that in Smurfville one female is enough, or perhaps there is only room for one. Muntu fears that her company having installed and seemingly stopped at a Smurfette each, on the board and the executive team, have chosen Papa Smurf’s route. As someone concerned with the equality and empowerment of women, Muntu is perturbed by the situation. She worries that remaining the executive Smurfette implies complicity. The company has impeccable BEE credentials, and thus doesn’t feel the need to address women empowerment. They only appointed the board and executive Smurfettes after they were criticized for an absence of women at the top. Sadly, the installation of the Smurfettes was seemingly enough to appease the criticism.

As Head of Communications, Muntu is in no position to change the employment policies of her organization. At best she can, and does, hire females in her department, which we all agreed is just not enough. Our country has far less women in formal employment than men. The informal employment sector on the other hand consists primarily of women. Unfortunately the informal sector is not the stuff that wealth is made of. This is subsistence earning; for a roof, food, clothing, and school fees. There is seldom medical aid when you are a domestic worker. There is no 13th cheque when you run a spaza shop. There is no pension fund when you sell magwinya at the taxi rank. Women are resilient and resourceful. The fact that we have and continue to feed, clothe, and school our children under such circumstances demonstrates that what we lack is opportunity not ability. We all know a brilliant domestic worker, office cleaner or hawker who, afforded the right opportunities would have gone far. Unfortunately if too many organizations are taking the Smurfette route it’s going to take forever to create these opportunities. Resigning, however, is more a tantrum than a solution, as we told Muntu. They’ll just find a replacement Smurfette.

Did you know that women perform 66% of the world’s work, earn 10% of the world’s income and own a measly 1% of the world’s property?[i] For many women being overworked and underpaid is a reality, not just a quip on a coffee mug. In South Africa, last year women in formal employment earned an average of 22.9% less than men. As expected, salaries are highest amongst managers and lowest amongst elementary workers such as cleaners. This is unlikely to change anytime soon as there are twice as many male managers as females. To add insult to injury, women managers earn 25% less than male managers and professional women earn 21% less than their male counterparts.[ii]Black females are the lowest paid demographic, hence the worst colour for a Smurfette is brown.

The latest U.S. Census shows that there’s been a mass exodus of minority, particularly black, women from corporate America. Tired of being underpaid and overworked they have decided to take their chances with entrepreneurship. Unfortunately women entrepreneurs in South Africa remain on the periphery of the economy. Their participation is mainly confined to crafts, hawking, personal services and the retail sector due to a range of socio-cultural constraints.[iii] So leaving the employment sector is not a great option for us.

Correcting the inequalities of our history by focusing on race is just not enough. Black South Africa is brimming with deadbeat dads. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers and sisters are the primary, often sole, providers. In this society of absentee fathers, not distinguishing between the empowerment of a black man and a black woman is irresponsible. It has been proven that when a woman’s financial circumstances improve she is inclined to invest most of the money in uplifting those close to her, whereas a man will focus on upgrading himself. Put another way, a woman who wins the lotto is likely to improve the life of her tribe; spouse, kids, close friends and relatives, whereas a man in a similar situation is likely to look move on to a new, more expensive, tribe.[iv]

What’s a Smurfette to do?

[i] Source: weareequal.org

[ii] Statistics SA Monthly Earnings of South Africa, 2010

[iii] Source: SAWEN’s South Africa Women’s Entrepreneurship Special report

[iv] Chris Fortson, “Women’s Rights Vital for Developing World”, 2003

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