How Can Female Leadership Advance Gender Equality?
Over the past decades, we’ve witnessed a greater emphasis on achieving gender equality and closing the gender wage gap. This era has observed the centenary of women’s suffrage for many European nations, marked by the Time’s Up movement, women’s marches across the globe, and the massive expansion of women’s education and economic growth worldwide. However, despite great strides toward gender parity, women are significantly under-represented in the global economy, and particularly in leadership roles, as they face huge constraints within society, at work and at home.
Having worked for more than two decades in male-dominated fields, I saw time and time again how women’s perspectives are often disregarded, their ideas shut down, their hard-earned opportunities offered to someone else. Ensuring that women are evenly represented at every level in every industry, that their voices are heard, and their visions are considered is the only way society can sustainably progress. In the same way that I was supported throughout my career, I would like to invite companies around the world to encourage and support women in taking leadership positions.
As recent studies show, women are still disproportionately affected by economic or environmental shocks, and they continue to undertake the majority of caring responsibilities. The COVID-19 pandemic is just a recent example of how global crises can reverse decades of progress on gender equality. Many women had to opt out of work or reduce their working hours for the purpose of caregiving. Some women have lost their jobs because of the dramatic shifts in the labour market. Due to the pandemic, the timeline for reaching gender parity has increased by 32 years, condemning another generation to live without equality. The recent Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) outlined that it will take 132 years to reach full parity with our current rate of progress. It is clear we need exponential growth in the timeline if we hope to ever reach a position resembling equality.
Unfortunately, with women being more likely to be affected by economic shocks, I find it hard to imagine a world of equality without placing the economic empowerment of women at the core of our strategy. As a female engineer, I believe that supporting female financial independence can pave the way for economic and social equality, and it can create a hugely positive force for businesses, national economies and innovation. But for this to happen, we need women to be fairly represented across industries and levels, and especially within leadership.
Indeed, many women have found success in the workforce in recent years, demonstrating effective leadership and positively influencing their organisations, despite living in challenging times for women’s rights. The representation of women in leadership positions has come a long way in quite a short amount of time. This year saw a record-breaking 44 women CEOs in the Fortune 500 list, which is a considerable improvement from only three women in the 1990s. The current list includes three notable women who have led large technology and engineering corporations: Marillyn Hewson who served as CEO of Lockheed Martin from 2013 to 2002, Ginni Rometty who became the first woman to head IBM in 2012, and Susan Wojcicki the CEO of tech giant, YouTube. The achievements of all these women, amongst many others, are immense, but a total of 44 women out of a list of 500 is only 8.8%. How is this even close to equal representation?
The WEF reported that the share of women hired into leadership roles has been steadily increasing to its current 31%. While this is an encouraging update, upon further scrutiny, it is inconsistent across industries. The leaders of the world’s largest corporations and some of the most influential figures are still predominantly men. Male-dominated sectors such as energy, manufacturing and infrastructure were some of the worst for gender parity in leadership. Indeed, as the WEF report shows, within these industries, more men were hired into leadership positions, whilst the majority of women were employed in lower-paid and less senior positions. Conversely, women were primarily hired into leadership roles within industries where women are already highly represented, such as education or NGOs. This is precisely why organisations operating in male-dominated fields play an essential role in sustaining efforts to increase the number of women in leadership roles. It’s an imbalance that I’ve been working on remedying for many years and I’m very grateful to be a part of a team that has succeeded in doing so, at Limak Group of Companies, setting an example for other companies in male-dominated industries.
To increase female leadership, I believe that organisations should place equality and diversity at the core of their culture and practices. This is precisely what we did at Limak. We set ourselves goals to reduce gender gaps and promote both gender equality and competitiveness simultaneously, in line with the UNDP Gender Equality Seal Programme. To achieve this certification, we ensured that for every open leadership role a qualified woman is interviewed, we invested in the professional development of emerging women leaders, we evaluated the hiring process for any unconscious bias and offered training to counter it, and we created a working environment where women can thrive. In the process, we’ve learned that if businesses are serious about playing a role in tackling gender disparities, greater investment in women is required.
True diversity in leadership also has the power to highlight to future generations that the ability to lead is not determined by factors of identity. Yet I believe diversity goes beyond providing role models. Research from McKinsey shows that diverse leadership is connected to positive business performance, including profitability, and that the greater the representation, the higher the likelihood of outperformance. The same is true for the opposite: poor representation in leadership hinders a company’s performance. The benefits go far beyond the company level – WEF findings show that reduced gender disparity is a driver for national prosperity through the positive relationship between gender parity and per capita income.
Gender diversity can help the society and economy of a whole nation thrive. As we navigate through the current economic challenges, if we can boost diversity, it could even encourage our economic recovery and beyond. As the WEF report states: “Unleashing creativity and dynamism of a country’s human capital is critical to overcoming the current crises and accelerating a recover.” If equality is not reason enough alone to increase our efforts, then we must hope that economic recovery and prosperity can provide further incentives for everyone to work towards this goal.
The path forward to gender equality is achievable only if we are all committed to the cause. We must elevate more women to leadership roles to advance economic parity and drive economic prosperity. The COVID-19 setback on women’s rights and the recent WEF reports on women leaders in male-dominated industries should act as a warning, to which we must not be complacent. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries, as some of the worst for equal representation, must make gender equality a priority to set the world back on track towards parity. This is an opportunity to be at the forefront of gender equality and set an example the rest of the world cannot ignore. We must move forward together.