Consolidating gains: A new way forward for gender diversity in business leadership

A woman works at a petrol station in Vietnam. Is closing the gender gap in leadership in male-dominated industries possible in less than 100 years? Photo by: Truong Van Vi / ILO / CC BY-NC-ND

Can we envision a time when we will no longer be surprised to hear that a woman is leading an energy or technology company? Can closing the gender gap in leadership, especially in male-dominated industries, be a possibility in less than 100 years?

Today’s dynamic women in top leadership positions are opening up the possibility of answering these questions with a resounding “Yes!” They have shattered glass ceilings and paved the way forward for countless others trying to uproot deeply entrenched ideas about women’s and men’s differing roles and opportunities in business and society. As a result, more and more women are now recognizing and making progress toward transcending the glass walls that also silo them in certain managerial functions, such as HR and communications.

However, a new report by the International Labor Organization released earlier this week reminds us that gender diversity gains are not always sustained. Featuring unique data collected from 1,300 private sector companies in 39 developing countries, the report states that concerted efforts are required to consolidate progress and change mindsets while fighting unconscious biases at all levels of society.

The question then becomes: What are some of the ways in which we can ensure that the progress made toward closing the gender gap in leadership is not reversed?

At the business level, the commitment of senior female role models, such as IBM’s Ginni Rometty, PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi and Kuwait Energy’s Sara Akbar, is changing perceptions and driving change. For example, Akbar has expressed a personal commitment to mentoring women in the energy industry and helping them reach their full potential.

Barclays’ Women in Leadership Total Return Index, which includes U.S. companies with a female CEO or at least 25 percent female board members, was launched six months ago and is already topping the S&P 500 Index by 1 percent. As the business case for investing in women’s employment and leadership is becoming ever more evident, private sector companies are recognizing the bottom-line and social benefits of hiring and promoting women. Businesses are increasing their investment in gender diversity measures.

Recently, the technology company Intel announced the allocation of $300 million toward its diversity initiative. Intel will use these funds to attract more women and minorities to the technology industry and to make it more hospitable to them once they get there, so that they can rise to the top.

Intel and Kuwait Energy are also members of SheWorks, the global private-sector partnership led by the International Finance Corp. that brings together leading companies committed to implementing gender-smart measures, such as mentorship or sponsorship programs and leadership training to increase women’s presence among executive ranks. Launched at the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, SheWorks collaborates with key partners, including the EDGE Certified Foundation, ILO and the U.N. Global Compact, to demonstrate the business case for investing in women, identify best practices and develop practical approaches to achieving gender equality in the workplace.

In the public sector, various developed and emerging markets are already noticing the business and social benefits of having more women leaders. Governments are adopting gender-smart policies tailored to their specific regional contexts. For example, establishing business and political quotas has gained popularity in recent years, and now more than 20 developed and developing countries, including India, Malaysia, Kenya, UAE and Slovenia, have passed laws that require their state-owned and publicly listed companies to reserve board seats for women directors.

Other governments, including those of Pakistan, Singapore and Australia are also making efforts to promote more women in management. The ILO report lists voluntary targets, gender diversity requirements and reporting encouraged by corporate governance codes, and public-private partnerships as some of the key measures countries are taking to consolidate progress toward gender diversity.

While implementing measures and policies to advance gender inclusion, however, governments and businesses must be mindful that merely focusing on increasing the quantity of women in leadership is not enough: Research commissioned by IFC on gender diversity in Pakistani boards demonstrates that 72 percent of the KSE 100 Index businesses that have women on boards are family-owned firms in which female board members are family members and do not always perform full-time roles.

Intensive efforts, therefore, must be aimed at promoting women’s effective, continuous and meaningful participation in the private and public sectors. Envisioning a time when female CEOs of technology or mining companies are the norm rather than the exception rests on the example of today’s inspiring women at the top and the consistent, combined and dedicated efforts of businesses, governments and communities.

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About the author

  • Rudaba Nasir

    Rudaba Nasir is part of the International Finance Corporation’s gender secretariat and focuses on women’s employment. She previously worked on gender assessments, women’s capacity strengthening initiatives, gender project design and impact evaluations in her native Pakistan and across South Asia, Latin America and Africa. She is interested in effectively engaging the private sector to achieve women’s economic empowerment.