International Women's Day: Pursuing workforce equality

By Marina Kooijmans, HLB Chief People Officer

Woman and man walking up stairs in office

International Women's Day 2023

Rooted in century-long societal divides, the gender gap has left women far behind men in terms of overall health, education, and employment opportunities. After decades of advocacy and reform movements, women worldwide now hold a significant portion of workplace and governmental leadership positions.  

But a significant portion is not enough. Women form half the global population, so they should form half of the workforce at every point, from entry-level positions to CEO and legislative roles. Unfortunately, we are far from achieving this equality.  

An overview of the gender disparity 

The World Economic Forum (WEF) created the Global Gender Gap Index in 2006 to measure worldwide progress toward gender equality. For nearly 20 years, WEF has tracked four critical factors in gender parity: educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, and political empowerment.  

WEF's 2022 report brought promising news, stating that the gender gap had been closed by over 68%. However, that still means it will take 132 more years to reach full gender equality. What's even more concerning is that this estimate is much greater than three years ago. Prior to 2020, the gap was set to close within 100 years. But with the generational loss during 2020-2021, the gender gap has actually expanded.  

Of course, these numbers differ slightly depending on the region.  

  • North America: 76.9% of the gender gap closed, with 59-62 years until full parity
  • Europe: 76.6% of the gender gap closed, with 60 years until full parity
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: 72.6 % of the gender gap closed with 67 years until full parity
  • Central Asia: 69.1% of the gender gap closed, with 152 years until full parity
  • East Asia and the Pacific: 69% of the gender gap closed, with 168 years until full parity
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: 67.9% of the gender gap closed, with 98 years until full parity
  • Middle East and North Africa: 63.4% of the gender gap closed, with 115 years until full parity
  • South Asia: 62.3% of the gender gap closed with 197 years until full parity

These numbers clearly show just how much more work is needed to elevate women to their rightful, equal place in society. However, that's only a broad look at the existing disparity. If we look closer at the women in the workforce—specifically in leadership positions—that's a much bleaker outlook.  

Gender parity in the workforce: A unrealistic goal?

Women worldwide earn well over half (54%) of higher education degrees, proving that we have made great strides in equal educational attainment. Yet those numbers don't translate into the workforce.  

There are several reasons for this, one of which is the persistence of traditional gender role expectations. Women across the globe are either discouraged from pursuing STEM careers or not even offered the opportunity. Instead, they are encouraged to study "more appropriate" careers like healthcare or teaching.  

Take Japan, for example. Over three-quarters of university students pursuing a degree in education are women, but only 16% of STEM students are women. And even when women land STEM careers, their salaries are often much lower than their male coworkers.  

These societal expectations—combined with ongoing global socioeconomic issues—have severely hindered any movement toward gender parity in the workforce. As economic volatility and geopolitical conflicts change the global landscape, women feel the effects much more acutely. Since they are usually the primary caregivers, women are often expected to shoulder more responsibilities when times get tough. For example, as the cost of living increases and families can no longer afford childcare, the woman is usually the one who sacrifices their career for the family.  

Unfortunately, such situations have occurred almost continuously for the past 15 years. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis started a downward trend in gender parity in the workforce, and the 2020 pandemic exacerbated the problem. Today, gender equality in the workforce is currently the lowest it has been since 2006. 

The ever-present inequality in leadership

As the number of women in the workforce decrease due to economic hardships, female representation at executive levels struggles. As of August 2022, less than 5% of the Global 500 businesses had female CEOS, which showed minimal progress from the previous year.  

The UN's 2022 Gender Snapshot shows similar stagnant growth. In Oceania (excluding New Zealand and Australia), Latin America, and the Caribbean, the number of women in managerial positions decreased, while the global average saw little to no progress. Various regions across Africa and Asia also remain far from their target goal for women in leadership.  

While the growing workforce gender gap and diverse socioeconomic issues certainly impact this leadership disparity, there are other factors at play that limit women from rising to managerial and CEO positions. Due to long-standing societal norms and stereotypes, organisations often have different—and unfounded—expectations for women. These biases have impacted decision-making and limited the advancement of women in the workplace in two main ways. 

Maternity Leave: Limited benefits and support upon return

Global maternity leave options are quite limited. Only 14 countries offer full-rate paid maternity leave, and the average amount of time offered totals less than 19 weeks. And in the United States, employers are not required to provide any compensation during maternity leave.  

These limited benefits for new mothers reflect a general disregard for their well-being—both physical and emotional. There's an unrealistic expectation for women to jump back into work full-time immediately after giving birth, and many companies use the limited pay and benefits as a way to coerce them into returning earlier.  

And the women that do return to work—or even plan to return to work—are treated differently. Many people feel that women can't perform at the same level professionally once they have children, and employers often fire women while on maternity specifically for that reason. While several countries have passed laws prohibiting dismissal during maternity leave in recent years, 42 economies worldwide still have no legal stipulations against the practice.  

Even if a woman retains her job after maternity leave, there is an underlying sentiment that she can't perform at the same pace since she now has additional home responsibilities. Mothers are often overlooked for leadership and managerial positions because decision-makers don't think they can handle it. In many cases, it doesn't matter if the woman is outperforming her peers—the bias prevails.  

This is also true for women who want to return to the workforce after an extended absence. Since maternity benefits are so limited, many choose to quit their job and take a full year—or more—to spend with their children. When they are ready to return to work, they are greeted by interviewers asking about their resume gaps and overlooking their skills because just because they took time to focus on their families.  

Instead of penalising women for having children, companies can offer support systems and benefits to women returning from maternity leave. For example, some organisations offer training programs for returning mothers to catch up on the latest technological advancements or upskill their abilities. Others offer flexible working hours or work-from-home options.  

These types of support systems show women that they are still valued at the company—which then boosts intrinsic motivation and performance. The issue isn't that mothers struggle with home and work responsibilities. It's that organisations only see them as mothers, not skilled working professionals with leadership potential.  

Tunnel vision when choosing successors

Having children isn't the only thing limiting women's advancement in the workplace. Decision-makers often favour male employees for managerial positions and leadership training over their female coworkers, regardless of performance.  

Again, implicit bias and gender stereotypes play significant roles here. When most people think of a great leader, they imagine someone tall, powerful—and male. Global cultural structures and centuries-long gender ideals have solidified this idea, so decision-makers tend to choose male successors.  

The other issue is that most people selecting the managers and CEOs are male. While the gender division for entry-level positions is fairly equal, the percentage of female employees steadily decreases with higher-level positions. Over 80% of Fortune 500 company chairs are male, as are nearly 70% of the board members. So these predominantly male boards generally choose people they relate to and see as future leaders—who are typically other males.  

While companies have implemented extensive diversity and inclusion programs, the change is still slow due to persistent implicit bias. Since men lead most companies, they must be the ones to start championing women in leadership by implementing training and mentorship programs.  

But they have to actually see women as capable leaders for those programs to be effective.  

Leading like a woman

The first step in seeing women as true leaders is to simply look at the numbers. Women-led businesses have proven to be far more successful than their male-led counterparts. Almost 90% of female-led Fortune 500 companies report above-average profits, nearly 10% higher than male-led businesses. This success stems from a women's inherent ability to understand and connect with people.  

Women bring essential leadership skills like integrity, empathy, and accountability, which help steer companies toward success. An organisation depends on the well-being of its employees, and women understand that better. Their sensitivity and consideration—things that have traditionally been labelled as weaknesses—are crucial to a business's success.  

Many organisations have realised this and advocated for women in managerial and executive positions. Yet despite numerous success stories, the global gender disparity in the workforce is expanding. While we can't solve the macroeconomic and socioeconomic issues affecting women's careers, we can advocate for change at the organisational level by: 

  • Examining personal biases 
  • Advocating for female colleagues and suggesting female managerial candidates 
  • Integrating inclusion and equality into the company culture 
  • Setting up support programs for working mothers 
  • Organising mentorship opportunities and leadership training 

At HLB, we are committed to supporting and empowering all our people in achieving their full potential. We know how important it is to be your true, authentic self at work. We are united against any form of social injustice.  Learn more about we create a more inclusive working culture here 

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