To hope or doubt? The state of women’s progress in the world

Woman Sierra leone

Woman with her child in Sierra Leone (Unsplash, 2018)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Laura Liswood, Secretary-General, Council of Women World Leaders


I often invoke the words of United States abolitionist Frederick Douglass when asked about the state of women’s progress globally: “there is no progress without struggle”.

More than 110 diverse women, including the first Muslim women and the first Native American, were elected to Congress in the 2018 US midterm elections. Several factors appeared to shape the results, including an increase in the number of women willing to run; women of colour moving forward; and President Donald Trump himself – his comments, policies and the allegations surrounding his treatment of women.

A record proportion of women – 20% – were elected on the national level that night. This election certainly represented progress, though not without struggle. And the US still lags behind other countries, many of which have elected bodies composed of 40% or more women.

The gender gap around the world

There are signs of hope. More and more countries have gender-balanced national cabinets. Rwanda’s parliament is 60% female. Iceland continues its path toward complete gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report. Saudi women are at last able to drive legally and allowed into sports stadiums, though the Crown Prince has also jailed activists fighting for women’s rights.

In Germany, it appears likely that Chancellor Angela Merkel will be succeeded by the new Christian Democratic Union party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Two female heads of state in a row? That has only happened three times before: in Ireland, New Zealand and Bangladesh.

On the business side, countries are continuing to use affirmative mechanisms to ensure that women have seats on company boards. Even in the US, where quotas cause heated debate, California has mandated that publicly traded companies headquartered in the state must have at least one woman on their board. Many corporations now have boards of more than 50% women.

The #MeToo movement has galvanized people across the world to think about harassment in the workplace. It has given women permission to share their most difficult experiences, and it has highlighted how disastrous, both personally and professionally, such experiences can be. It has shown us what happens when women have to rely on men who abuse their power.

Corporations now understand that allegations and proof of sexual misconduct can harm them and pose ethical, reputational and financial risks which affect their bottom line, stock price and hiring ability. Larry Fink, CEO of global investment firm BlackRock, sent a letter to clients worldwide which highlighted the need to look beyond financial results. Every company must demonstrate how it “makes a positive contribution to society”, he wrote, including in diversity and talent management.

Why giving women a seat at the table pays off

Women are good for business. Research conducted over three decades shows a correlation between women’s representation in leadership roles and positive outcomes in organizations. Catalyst, Credit Suisse and McKinsey & Co. have all reported that companies with more women in leadership and on boards have a higher correlation of profitability and financial performance. They also have fewer instances of fraud, corruption and financial reporting mistakes.

Experience in Norway, which requires companies to reserve at least 40% of board seats for women, has shown that women are more likely to consider the long term, and include constituents other than shareholders in their board deliberations. Women encourage boards to focus more on communities, the environment and employees.

Women also introduce different legislation into parliaments and deliberating bodies than men do, often related to family, education and healthcare. With a critical mass in parliament, women can change its hours of operation to reflect the needs of legislators with children. In Sweden, proceedings now end at 6pm instead of 10pm. And in a virtuous circle, more women in public office inspire younger women to follow in their footsteps.

When women are involved in post-conflict negotiations, peace is more likely to prevail. A peace agreement is 35% more likely to last for at least 15 years when women are involved in the process, according to statistical analysis.

The ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon

But the arc of progress is not straightforward. The Global Gender Gap Report 2018 says it will take more than 200 years for the gender pay gap to disappear, at the current backsliding rate of progress. The world is leaving around $12 trillion in GDP on the table because of this gender gap, according to McKinsey & Co.

“Industries must proactively hardwire gender parity in the future of work through effective training, reskilling and upskilling interventions, and tangible job transition pathways, which will be key to narrowing these emerging gender gaps and reversing the trends we are seeing today”, says Saadia Zahidi, Head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society and Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum.

While the number of women on boards is increasing, it’s happening slowly, and often because of government action. In the 44 countries where companies have three or more women on their boards, 43 have government-mandated quotas. Those without affirmative mechanisms are seeing only incremental gains.

Then there is the scrutiny that comes from holding power. Women who make it to the top face a set of challenges unknown to their male peers. They are often perceived as less legitimate. They continue to face unconscious bias, sexual harassment, discrimination, higher expectations and micro-aggressions – small but steady erosions of their authority.

When women achieve high-level positions, they often face a precipice known as the “glass cliff” phenomenon. They have broken the glass ceiling by rising to leadership roles in dire times, such as financial crisis, controversy or conflict. Then they are pushed off the cliff if they can’t find or create solutions – consider Theresa May and Brexit. As a result, women are often forced out sooner than their male counterparts because of the high-risk nature of their assignments, and the lack of support or authority to accomplish their difficult goals, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Action, reaction

The #MeToo movement, despite empowering women, has led to unintended consequences. US Vice President Mike Pence has a rule not to dine alone with a woman who is not his wife. The #MeToo movement has made this line of thinking more common, perpetuating the unequal treatment of women in the office.

Bloomberg recently published an article titled “Wall Street Rule for the #MeToo Era: Avoid Women at All Costs”. Fearing they could be entangled in accusations of sexual misconduct, some men have simply avoided associating with women at all. They may stop hiring, coaching or mentoring women, ironically ensuring a continuation of inequality and the gender pay gap. With that attitude, a woman’s career prospects suffer, just in an entirely different way. I am reminded of Newton’s third law of physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Optimists say that much has changed. Societies no longer consider domestic violence a taboo subject, for example, but an illegal act. Pessimists say that change is too slow. Men may now do more household work than in previous generations, for instance, but women still continue to do far more care in the home than men, freeing up men’s time to achieve.

When asked about women’s progress, I think of the glass that is either half full or half empty. But one thing is certain: women need to use their victories to galvanize more victories. Failure must energize us to clamour more loudly for progress.

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