ISSN 2330-717X

Female Leadership At Tipping Point Despite Persistent Workplace Bias

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The world needs more women leaders in business, politics and culture, concurred an all-female panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting today. We are still a long way off from achieving gender parity in employment – 108 years off, according to an estimate by the World Economic Forum. But panellists agreed that the developed world is at a tipping point in this respect.

“Optimism gives some kind of certainly that what you do is important,” said Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania. “Figures say one thing, but we are responsible for changing them.”

“I’m optimistically pessimistic,” demurred conductor Marin Alsop. “This is the moment to be vigilant.”

The need to tackle fundamental biases in the workplace was highlighted as a means to enable women to make it to the top. “There is a false narrative and biased assumptions that we are using as justification for lack of progress,” said Carolyn Tastad, Group President for North America at Procter & Gamble. “We’ve got to get rid of labels,” she said, such as the idea that women lack confidence. One study found that men apply to roles when they fit 60% of criteria; women apply when they fit 100% of criteria.

Many organizations have 50-50 representation at lower levels, dropping off dramatically in middle and upper management. Quotas and targets are one way to close that gap but should not be relied upon. “We don’t want fake promotions to close the gap,” said Tastad, but rather a fundamental change of the culture.

“We shouldn’t be afraid of having targets,” said Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Minister of Canada, highlighting Canada’s current gender-balanced cabinet, a campaign promise of Justin Trudeau that “sends a powerful message.”

“You have to create the conditions where women want to be successful,” Freeland contended, emphasizing the false choice between family and career that prevents women from succeeding. Sufficient paid maternity leave and more paternity leave can help to dispel that illusion, she noted, but employers should also think more holistically in establishing equality-based practices and norms.

Positive role models were highlighted as agents of change, including in pop culture and on social media. “We need to visualize that it is possible with role models,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. There is gender parity in UN leadership.

“The music business is a microcosm of broader society,” said Marin Alsop, Conductor at Intermusica Artists’ Management. “If I’m really delicate [in my gestures], I’m lightweight. If a man is delicate, he’s sensitive. And if I’m strong, they call me a name.”

Even when a woman reaches the top, said Grybauskaite, she faces more challenges. Commenting on UK Prime Minister Theresa May: “Everybody fights against her, but nobody wants her to leave because it’s too messy and cumbersome, and the results will be unrewarded no matter what.”

Achieving pay equity is a priority in a world where women still earn 80 cents on every dollar a man earns, panellists agreed, and can be addressed by encouraging more women to apply to higher-paying positions. “We will not make progress unless we engage men in the process,” said Tastad. “This isn’t a zero-sum game.”

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