For centuries women had to fight to be recognised as equal, and the road to full implementation is expected to remain still very long. The World Economic Forum estimates it between 54 years for Europe and 163 years for East Asia and the Pacific. In the EU - irrespective of all legal commitments and political declarations - women are today still paid some 20% less for the same job as men. And the access to executive positions is globally on average still twice harder for women than for men. At the same time, in most countries about 60% of all university graduates are women.
There are two aspects of the gender imbalance issue: first, it is a lack of fairness in society, and the second is the wasting of human resources and talent. These two issues are still not taken seriously enough by many men, including those at top political and corporate positions. An indication of this is the symbolic number of men actively involved in gender balanced organisations. Are they afraid to damage their masculine profile? If so, this speaks a lot of the general state of mind among men. Also, their absence is not helping the image of these organisations, often being perceived in the public as pushing just for their own rights – and not addressing a major societal issue!
Numerous researchers have proven important female advantages for leadership. They are generally more diligent and focussed on details, have higher social and emotional intelligence, stronger loyalty to the organisation, natural sense of fairness in interpersonal relations, are better team players, have better ability to lead win-win negotiations, and are more resistant towards breaking societal rules and the law. But they also have some weaknesses, such as they find it more difficult to take the “bird’s eye view” – perceiving the bigger picture, and smaller readiness to take the risk. Women can sometimes be less motivated to collaborate with other women (perceived as a competitor), and may not easily forgive and forget unfavourable experience with some people. Risk-aversion is a disadvantage on an individual level but could be a virtue to counterbalance the excessive, and sometimes irresponsible risk attitude of some male board members.
The share of women in senior business executive functions has slowly grown, and it reached globally 29% in 2019/2020. According to a recent survey among 1,500 global mid-market companies 87% of these companies have at least one woman in a senior management role.
However, the overall number of women in top business roles is still rather low. Only 5% of CEOs of major corporations in the US are women. In 2015 the number of women in senior leadership has grown, particularly in the C-suite where the representation of women has increased from 17% to 21%. Today, 44% of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29% of companies in 2015. Corporate America scores much lower than France or Norway, where businesses average more than 40% female representation on their board of directors.
It has been argued that gender diversity encourages more innovation in company boards. Nash Riggins presented in a 2013 article in the New Economy the results of a large survey, which documented huge advantages which multiple women serving on company boards bring compared to industry averages: 42% higher return on sales, 53% higher returns on equity, and 66% higher return on invested capital!
The modern service economy relies on skills that come easily to women, such as determination, attention to detail and measured thinking. In the modern workforce, employees are desiring more constant feedback, actually interacting with their managers, and better work-life balance. These objectives are most likely going to be met by a female manager, while it might not come as naturally to a male leader. Moreover, the female brain is naturally wired for long-term strategic vision and community building. For the first time, we are seeing examples of female leaders emerging from across the generations to cross-weave their knowledge and drive for change. If we take the environment and climate as an example, someone as experienced and respected as Jane Goodall is standing alongside teenage activists like Greta Thunberg. Importantly, there are now ambitious and capable women running influential organizations who can activate change processes through technology and policy.
In politics more women are now being elected into legislatures across the world: they hold 25.2% of parliamentary lower-house seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions, compared to 24.1% and 19% respectively last year. Interestingly: since 2019 in the South African parliament the share of women deputies is 46% and in the Cabinet even 50%. While there is a long way to go, improving political empowerment for women typically corresponds with increased numbers of women in senior roles in the labour market.
Diversity in leadership is good for politics, as for business. For example, a Harvard Business School Report on the male-dominated venture capital industry found that “the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments’ performance”. The gender differences are very relevant here: while men are traditionally and by nature more open for risk-taking than women, greed and the instinct to dominate and even take advantage of a venture partner is a more masculine than a feminine feature.
Women represent in advanced countries about half of labour force, but less than a quarter occupy technology positions (in US 24% in 2018). The higher at technology sectors one looks the imbalance tends to be stronger: in cloud computing just 12% of professionals are women; in engineering & Data, and in AI, the numbers are 15% and 26% respectively.
In many countries various regulatory measures were adopted, mostly recommending quotas: in Norway, a 40% mandatory quota for boards for listed companies was adopted in 2003 and has already been exceeded. Now 11 EU members plus Switzerland, Israel and Iceland have gender regulation. And in 2013 the European Parliament has accepted the Commission Directive introducing a 30% quota – after facing quite some opposition. The Commission Vice President Viviane Reding – together with 5 other Commissioners – have proposed the solution as a temporary measure (till 2028), and on the occasion she has stated, that she is not particularly fond of the quotas, but likes very much what they achieve! The results from Norway have certainly been a strong argument.
It has been proven that gender balance enhances the innovative performance of respective organisations, and consequently their productivity and resilience. At the political level, most parties and political leaders are certainly not paying sufficient attention to the issue - being pragmatic or rather opportunistic, as they are aware that a large part of their constituencies is not particularly enthusiastic about full gender balance. We are referring to a large part of the masculine and even a smaller part of the traditionally-minded female population.
When we talk about the attitudes, one has to ask first whether the issue is properly and sufficiently introduced to the youth through the entire educational system. Obviously not, and this is where governments should be pressed to make sure young people are growing with adequate values, including a civilized gender balance culture – as a result of the natural equality of sexes.
The electorate should exert pressure on the government through political parties to secure full gender balance in the parliaments, as well as in the other two branches of power. If this does not happen, there is a gap between what they are declaring, and actually doing on a daily basis.
The media should also pay more attention to the issue, and illustrate with research results what benefits are achieved by those who implement gender balance versus those who ignore or underestimate it.
And finally, the civil society organisations who are active on gender issues should emphasize that this is not only a question of injustice against women and an appeal for being politically correct but equally a systemic societal failure imposing major damage to all sectors of society, from politics to business. Bringing into these organisations more men is also something worth pursuing.