Women have never been in a stronger position to lead, change and shape the economic, social and political landscape. The 21st century has seen a dramatic shift in "traditional" family dynamics and greater recognition of gender in legislation has helped pull apart gender-role divisions. As a result women are far more economically independent and socially autonomous, representing 42% of the UK workforce and 55% of university graduates. Yet women are still less likely than men to be associated with leadership positions in the UK: they account for 22% of MPs and peers, 20% of university professors, 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions, and 3% of board chairpersons. This stark inequality is consistently reflected in pay gaps, despite the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1975. Income inequality has risen faster in the UK than any other OCED country and today women earn on average £140,000 less than men over their working careers.
In recent reports 2.4 million unemployed women said that they want to find employment, and nine out of 10 people want to see men and women equally represented in leadership positions. If the intention to change is there, and basic social and political frameworks support women in the workforce, then we need to look beyond facts and figures to establish what other factors contribute to the gaping hole in gender equality. While statistics offer insights into current patterns and behaviours, they do not address why the skills and talents of women are not being fully utilized.
A relatively neglected factor is the role of stereotypes, reinforced by social and cultural norms, which underline certain expectations about gender. Decades of research has shown that stereotypes about men and women have a huge impact on our beliefs about how they should (or should not) behave. Consequently gender stereotypes reinforce social status and gender hierarchies: for example, surveys and experiments show that women are generally perceived as more "communal" and "loyal", whereas men are described more as "protectors" and "competent". Of course not everyone subscribes to these stereotypes, but there is evidence that men and women who behave in ways that contrast with these traditional stereotypes – such as career women or stay-at-home dads – are likely to be evaluated negatively by others. A lifetime of exposure to what women should be, how they should behave and who they should represent drives and reinforces unconscious and unseen biases.
Unconscious bias is particularly important as it arises from the implicit assumptions and unspoken attitudes, beliefs and expectations that we all have about others. Study after study has highlighted that both men and women have unconscious gender biases. For example, people view men as more capable leaders, men are rewarded more highly than women – just having a male name is more likely to get you the job. If you are a mother, your chances of getting the job are reduced by 70%. Overcoming stereotypes and unconscious bias can only be achieved if we are all willing to address our own immediate judgments and can put in place practices and procedures to mitigate their potential effects.
When we pair the psychological evidence with the economic facts, the argument for gender equality is overwhelming. Research consistently shows that groups perform to a higher standard if the gender balance is even, or when women outnumber men. For example, Catalyst research found that companies with high-level female representation on boards significantly outperformed those with sustained low representation by 84% on return on sales, 60% on return on invested capital, and 46% on return on equity. The Women's Business Council predicts that we could add 10% (that is over £150bn) to our GDP by 2030 if all the women that wanted to work were employed.
In the long term encouraging women to participate in the labour market is vital to ensure economic growth at both micro and macro level. As we face an increasingly ageing population and the resulting shortage of skilled workers, it is fundamental that we also depend on high female employment and high wage returns in order to manage the skills deficit.
We are taking bigger and bigger steps towards providing more flexible workplaces, better parental leave policies and more chances for women to get back into the workplace. But these opportunities are wasted if our stereotypes and biases distort the way we evaluate others, and often to their disadvantage.
• Abigail Player is a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at Kent university's school of psychology.
Human progress is a curious thing. It took less than 40 years to put a man on the moon, but it will take 170 years to put a woman in the board room in many places on our planet. According to the latest Global Gender Gap Report, this is the number of years before we close the global economic gender gap. Closing the global political gender gap is projected to take even longer.
There is no denying that the state of gender parity in the modern workplace is indeed alarming. Progress on some gender equality issues like discrimination and harassment is under way, but other areas like career development show little to no improvement. For example, only 3% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. The share of women in FTSE 100 boards of directors remains stagnant at 12%. A quarter of all FTSE 100 boards are, in fact, still comprised of 100% men. No matter where you are, there are immense hurdles that women around the world have to face when it comes to career advancement.
Businesses remain stifled by entrenched leadership groups that claim these ostensible gender inequalities are related to issues of choice, not selection. According to them, the lack of female talent in management teams stems from the “different choices” that women tend to make throughout their careers. But is it really a matter of different ambitions and career choices? Or are we facing a much more systemic problem that permeates the whole of society?
A recent survey by the Harvard Business Review and Bain & Company finds overwhelming evidence for the shocking state of gender parity in today’s business world. A closer look at the data indicates that even though women are equally competent and equally suited for leadership positions, there are serious structural factors that hinder their advancement to the higher echelons of corporate hierarchies.
On the one hand, there are severe perception gaps that make the very discussion of gender parity in the workplace difficult. While over two-thirds of surveyed men indicated that, according to their opinion, women shared equal opportunities at their workplace, less than a third of surveyed women said they felt the same. Furthermore, 80% of women agreed that gender parity needs to become a strategic business imperative in their organization. By contrast, only 48% of men agreed with that statement. This stark contrast is indicative of a concerning perception gap on the state of gender parity, permitting some men and women to live in their own factual universe. Given these different perceptions of the problem at hand, it is not surprising that mostly male-led companies have been slow to adapt to the new reality.
On the other hand, there are cultural factors that impede progress towards greater parity. In many societies, there are deep-rooted gender stereotypes about the role of women as “caregivers” and men as “breadwinners”. The abovementioned HBR survey finds that, for 80% of women, these stereotypes are no longer plausible. Instead, these women assert that both men and women are equally good caregivers at home. Along similar lines, 77% of men believed that their partner should be the one making the career sacrifice for the sake of their family. However, only 53% of men said they were ready to make their own compromises for the sake of the household. Subconscious biases like this persist and it is evident that gender roles should not be used as a pretext for curbing women’s career development.
Therefore, there seems to be no compelling reason to argue that gender parity is just a minor PR issue that does not require extensive managerial attention. On the contrary, in order to effectively address these challenges, management teams need to act decisively and consider implementing the following five steps towards greater gender parity at work:
1. Systematically gather data to establish common ground for a discussion of gender inequality in the workplace. Gender parity metrics can, in fact, contribute to more open dialogue and a conversation that is based on facts, rather than speculation.
2. Change company culture to eliminate gender stereotypes associated with work-life balance programmes. This entails promoting gender-neutral flexible career paths and actively encouraging all employees to take advantage of these opportunities.
3. Modify the performance review process to prevent structural disadvantages for people who seize work-life balance opportunities. At the same time, remind team leaders not to penalize employees for their needed level of additional flexibility.
4. Keep searching for potential recruits until gender balanced is reached. Instead of implementing rigid quotas, continue to look for great candidates until there are an equal number of male and female candidates in the talent pool.
5. Finally and most importantly, make gender parity a strategic objective for the organization. The top-down commitment to addressing this issue is imperative, because it contributes to a progressive company culture that is based on accountability and equality.
170 years to close the economic gender gap is a timeframe we do not have to accept. We can do better than that. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable; it requires the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals”. This is why we should be optimistic. By actively promoting gender parity, facilitating flexible career growth and empowering more female leadership, we should be able to realistically accomplish this goal in our lifetimes.
Vyacheslav Polonski is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper with the Oxford hub. His article is this month's winner in the Global Shaper essay contest, on the theme of gender parity.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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