Kgomotso Moalusi starts her morning routine by meticulously laying out her pre-planned business outfit.
If need be, she’ll give her blouse a quick iron before starting her hour-long grooming regimen with a shower. She matches her attire with a timeless leather handbag, applies make-up, chooses her accessories and finishes off the look with a bold pair of red heels.
“It’s a lot to maintain,” says Moalusi, a 33-year-old Business Director at Vuma Reputation Management in Johannesburg, but this detailed ensemble is the bare minimum to be a professional in corporate South Africa.
From corporate clothing to being well-groomed, you need to look the part in a white-collar environment, and pay for it, which, for the sake of this article, we could call ‘the businesswoman tax’.
It’s a tax women pay in many ways, from the wage gap to pricey toiletries and the luxury tax on tampons. Added to this is the need to manage stress in a high-pressure work environment, and often the expenses of hiring staff to look after the family while working nine to five, and traveling the world.
The consequences of these multi-layered, subtle and institutionalized penalties are manifold – and most have a real and measurable financial burden on South Africa’s businesswomen and professionals.
Nicole Davidson feels the seemingly superficial – but very real – pressure of dressing appropriately as an attorney and director at the firm, MED Attorneys.
“There’s an expectation on female professionals to look and dress a certain way, especially in court, where one is limited to black and white attire,” she says. “Even our skirts have to be a certain length, but I tend to blur the lines and am quite bold with color.”
Moalusi agrees: “A full corporate wardrobe is a lot to maintain.”
Every item, from underwear to coats, needs to look neat and professional – and this includes accessorizing too. Handbags, shoes, and jewelry all form part of the businesswoman’s wardrobe.
Ann Pierce, founder of PhotoFeeler, a site that crowdsources first impressions from LinkedIn photos, writes in xoJane: “As they stand, I would define the ambiguous rules of traditional professional dress for women this way: a woman must wear a version of the popular menswear (1), and it must fit her in a way that is feminine (2), without being sexually appealing (3).”
An outfit, indeed, can say a lot and dressing appropriately is a tricky and expensive minefield to navigate.
“You’re a brand wherever you go,” says image consultant Maureen Grobler, who dresses a range of professionals, from those cutting corners to senior management executives at FNB in South Africa.
“The impressions you give from your outfit, poise, and most especially your grooming are all used to categorize you,” she adds, and all play a part in putting you on or holding you back from the career track.
Comparatively, corporate men have quite a basic look; owning three suits – black, navy and grey – is enough variety.
Writes Pierce: “Menswear is neutral. ‘No-fail’ work choices such as suit jackets, button-downs, and polo shirts all look and fit the same.”
Moalusi finds she needs much more basic clothing, plus accessories like scarves, to give her look variety.
“If a woman repeats an outfit too often, that just doesn’t fly,” she says, “But a guy can wear the same navy suit all week and no one will know the difference.”
She has enough clothes to mix, match, tweak and accessorize so an outfit isn’t repeated in a three-week cycle.
“It’s quite challenging to put together a full corporate wardrobe,” she says. “The ‘businesswoman tax’ puts you under huge pressure. I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I didn’t look the way I do.”
A savvy tactic, in the long run, is to invest in some timeless pieces. For example, instead of buying a variety of ‘plastic’ handbags that peel, Grobler recommends buying a leather handbag that has serious longevity, and high quality shoes of a similar nature.
“Not all women can afford this ‘businesswoman tax’,” says Grobler.
Davidson, for this reason, buys statement pieces, like locally-made Missibaba handbags that range in price from R3,500 ($260) to R9,250 ($687) for a tote.
A professional look is complete with the right shoes – and most women spend a small fortune on them. As Pierce explains in xoJane, “Wearing flats is often seen as sloppy and unprofessional for a woman, despite the fact that she is better able to physically function this way. At least a small heel is required to denote formality, but a too-high heel can become defamatory.”
On top of all this, there’s the need to be immaculately groomed. From hair (dyed, natural, straightened or braided) to toes (perfectly gelish-ed), there’s a cost every inch of the way.
Women who wear makeup are generally seen as more competent – and the reverse if she wears too much.
According to comparisons done by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, male and female versions of the same toiletry products vary significantly in price: out of the 800 examined, female products cost 7% more on average.
The tax on tampons is an additional financial burden. Whereas items like condoms are subsidized by the government, tampons and sanitary pads have a 14% price hike.
Though not the case for all professionals, many have to juggle children and family responsibilities too. Davidson says she depends on a full-time nanny to assist with her little ones, and that many of her friends with older children need stay-at-home help, and an au-pair to fetch the older children from school.
The Working Mothers Expo, launching from 4-6 November at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, uses the hashtag #TheJuggleIsReal; many working mothers feel significant pressure in maintaining a home and their work place to full capacity. A less measurable burden is the anxiety.
“The culture expectations of women are mirrored in the workplace,” says Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Richard Middleton, who sees a fair amount of female executives in his offices.
“Women tend to be raised in a certain way, and a lot of women are expected to bear the emotional burden in the workplace and home, and take responsibility often without complaining or asking for help. This growing workload is unsustainable and inevitably when there’s burnout a lot of women feel guilty for not being able to handle this.”
Then there is the constant, oppressive burden of the wage gap. Dr Mark Bussin, Executive Committee Member at the South African Reward Association (SARA) and Chairperson, 21st Century Pay Solutions, works with a management consulting company that surveyed 700 companies and over 900 positions.
“Based on this huge database, we discovered that there’s a 15% average wage gap based on the median salary,” he says. Though this 15% is pretty consistent globally, South Africa is making real progress combating this with the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.
The ‘businesswoman tax’ is insidious, and ripples through every aspect of the corporate woman’s life, holding long-term repercussions from paying back student debt to saving for retirement, paying off investments like property, and more. The combination of a lower salary with higher overall expenses and high expectations – being the immaculately-dressed professional and the perfect mother and partner – leads to emotional stress and burnout. Hopefully, awareness and governmental intervention, like the Equality Act, will continue making inroads into these inequalities.