Do you think the collapse of the economy is linked to the fact that the world of big business is still largely a male preserve?
I think there might be a direct connection between the absence of diversity and the presence of financial insecurity. Men tend to react in a standard manner to financial problems with usual cost cutting solutions. Women on the other hand tend to be more focused on the whole community. To foster change and solve problems, more than one way of thinking is likely to be helpful. It is not a question of male or female as it is a question of variety in ways of thinking. By having both men and women in decision-making roles, there is greater balance in the solutions, taking in various perspectives. It makes perfect sense – two heads are better than one. The same applies to gender so two genders are better than one! By including more women, men are likely to benefit from this workplace diversity as it fosters more variety in thinking and acting than traditional male models of behavior. Everyone stands to gain from increased workplace diversity.
Since women account for around 44% of the employed population in the EU and only 1 out of 10 places on company boards is taken by women, doesn’t it seems that in most countries companies have failed to fully embrace the concept of gender equality in the workplace?
The World Economic Forum recently published its annual report on the Global Gender Gap rankings. The Nordic countries are leading the charge with women being well represented across the four benchmarks that are tested: education, health, involvement of women in the economy and politics. Belgium comes 28th, even lower than last year! All the western countries have managed parity regarding education and health but it is the participation in politics that lowers America (as they have great women in business rankings) and it is the participation in business that drops Belgium to the bottom of the table in Europe (rank 60).
Again, that is why there is the need for JUMP actions. We need to address the economic and business disparity across Belgium (and Europe) in relation to gender. ‘When all think alike, no one is thinking very much’ characterises the potential danger of boards consisting of people that look alike. If anything, this crisis has proven the persistent lack of gender diversity on boards has not led to high performance—so it’s time to change and embrace the business benefits of diversity.
Here is a perfect example; a recent French study into the fall of share prices of the CAC40 showed a positive effect of women on boards. While the average share price of the CAC40 companies dropped 43% in 2008, companies with a high number of women in top management recorded better numbers. One of these best practices is Sodexo with 43% female managers. It recorded a fall in its share price of only 8%, far less than most listed businesses. If the crisis did anything, it shows the call for diversity in the management has become a Must now.
Since the Treaty of Rome, the EU has put gender at the core of its policies. Why don’t we have more women in top-level positions? What went wrong?
Well, March 8th was International Women’s Day and I think it’s a great symbol for the answer to that question. The struggle for equality is ongoing. While there have been many women and men before us who helped pave the way to where we are today, the fight for equality must continue. The sustainability of our acquired rights and the strengthening of our confidences are needed to live out those rights recognised through our history.
Feminism is about equality, and respect for all human beings. And that is a struggle we need to fight in the less obvious areas – the boardroom. While we know women are working, they are under-represented in positions of power and authority. We want equal pay, tend to equal representation across all sectors, equal choice and opportunity. Change takes time and so the feminist movement perseveres.
More specifically in relation to a lack of women in top-level positions, the issue of work/life balance comes into play as the woman shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice her career in the name of a family. Child rearing should not be the automatic onus on the female, so if and when there are children, men must take an equal role and responsibility in raising them. To succeed in this very difficult area, a great deal of partnership between the man and woman is required. Family management must be a two-person responsibility.
In addition to that, the success of gender equality is also in legal measures at companies who respect and accommodate for workers with families.
In Norway, it is a legal requirement that public limited companies have a minimum of 40% of members of either sex on the board and if they fail to do so they are faced with sanctions, including closure of the company. Do you think we need something like that across Europe? Or what other measures can we come up with to ensure there is equal representation in top positions?
Yes indeed! The prime minister of Norway has made that request to boost the innovation of the economy by this minimum female representation. It is a provocative and exciting measure, one which I enthusiastically support, that is bound to have interesting results.
The companies initially concerned by this measure arrived at a representation of 25% women on board without too many problems. However, 40% was a whole other level of equality harder to achieve. What is so thrilling about this governmentally induced problem is it forced businesses to think outside the box. Companies had to change the paradigm and imagine other profiles to fill in the seats of the board. We’re talking about people they might not have considered, such as one lacking a MBA. Or viewing women’s experience more horizontally, without financial or ‘in line management’ backgrounds.
While some businesses might baulk at this solution, what is so radical about these efforts is that businesses were forced to change, equality and goals have been achieved, and the future is yet to be written. I can’t wait to see what happens next – I think there will be growth and change but in unexpected areas. All because there are various perspectives and viewpoints now being entered into the decision making equation.