Levelling the gender playing field through affordable, quality education

4 min read   •   August 31, 2023
Louise Schoonwinkel, MD of Optimi Home

Women’s Month in South Africa is a time when we acknowledge how far we have come in terms of addressing challenges of gender equality in our country.

We have come a long way in our country, with more women occupying more decision-making roles in both the private and public sectors.

For example, South Africa saw an increase in the proportion of seats held by women in parliament, from 33% in 2004 to 46% in 2019, according to a recent note from Statistics South Africa.

While males still dominate senior positions in large parts of our private sector, South Africa is steadily beginning to see more women CEOs. For example, women now occupy CEO positions at several JSE-listed companies, including Anglo American, Kumba Iron Ore, Bidvest Group, Clicks and Exxaro Resources.

However, while progress has been made, recent data from Statistics South Africa also points to how 47% of South African women were recorded as economically inactive in 2022.

To put this into perspective, 35.6% of men in South Africa were recorded as economically inactive in 2022. It’s clear then that addressing gender inequality in our country makes economic sense, as placing more energy and emphasis on this from an education perspective can help to lower our country’s high unemployment rate dramatically. In terms, we can further create much-needed economic growth.

Empowerment through education

Louise Schoonwinkel is one of South Africa’s many notable women leaders in education.

After completing her articles with PwC and becoming a chartered accountant, she joined Deloitte, where she first worked as a global project manager in the global leadership and learning team. After that, she joined Deloitte Africa as a senior manager in learning and development.

Today, she is the MD of Optimi Home, which manages South Africa’s biggest homeschooling and online schooling provider, Impaq.

“I have always had a passion for education. Education is truly a tool that can uplift individuals from their circumstances and help shape a nation’s future. We have a responsibility and great opportunity in South Africa to help build our nation by giving learners who might not have had the opportunity, access to quality education,” says Schoonwinkel.

And when it comes to ensuring a more level playing field for gender equality, nothing is more important than education.

Homeschooling provider Impaq has been at the forefront of boosting access to quality education in South Africa.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Impaq experienced record growth, with its numbers jumping to over 30 000 registered learners. With public schools facing challenges and limitations with placing a growing number of learners in traditional schools, homeschooling is also increasingly filling a much-needed gap.

“Homeschooling and online schooling is a great equaliser as it’s much more affordable than other private education options in South Africa. Learners who might otherwise not have had access to quality education due to access to good schools in their area, can now have access no matter where they are,” says Schoonwinkel.

“By using technology, distance education also enables one great teacher to reach a much larger audience, and not only have an impact on a select few,” she adds.

Louise explains that homeschooling is not just for families that struggle with placing their children in a school of their choice but also for a broader range of situations where, for example, learners may not flourish in a traditional school environment.

“It also gives learners who are in outlying areas and those who excel in sports the opportunity to still have access to quality education,” says Schoonwinkel.

Louise believes that widening the ability to access quality education in our country also gives South Africa a stronger platform from which to provide more children – both girls and boys – the opportunity to excel at school level, and later on, in the working world.

“If I reflect on my childhood, working mothers had access to very few opportunities, such as teaching and nursing. It was frowned upon for women to be in leadership positions in the corporate world. Today, there are so many wonderful women in leadership positions in business who serve as true role models for our girls.

“These women have proven that girls can reach the same heights in their careers as men,” says Schoonwinkel.