Gender equality and providing opportunities for women in the workplace has been of interest to me for a number of years. It began when I became an MBA Director at an Australian university some years ago. I was perplexed, and quite concerned, by the number of women looking to do an MBA who came into my office and told me why they thought they would not be successful. Reasons varied, and included ‘because I don’t like maths’, but ultimately these women, who were obviously ambitious and wanted to progress in their career, didn’t believe they were capable of succeeding.
My experiences as an MBA Director is supported by the results of a multitude of studies. Women seldom initiate salary negotiations, and they generally do not put themselves forward when it comes to applying for a promotion. Indeed, they will only apply for a promotion when they feel they have 100% of the criteria required for the job. Men, on the other hand, are happy to apply for the same job when they have only 60% of the skill set!
When it comes to leadership, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that women do not see themselves as leaders. They will point to activities such as volunteering, leading community projects, or being president of a committee as experiences, not as indicators of leadership. And even when they are in leadership roles, women often see themselves as part of a broader collective rather than leaders in an individualistic sense. Perhaps this reflects the fact that socialisation plays a big part in developing leadership attributes in women, particularly in childhood, AND that lessons learnt by women in their formative years often work to undermine their inclination to become a leader.
Women will only apply for a promotion when they feel they have 100% of the criteria required for the job. Men, on the other hand, are happy to apply for the same job when they have only 60% of the skill set!
For example, a recently published study by KPMG reports the most important lesson learnt by women while growing up was to ‘Be nice to others’. This was followed by: ‘Be a good student’; followed by ‘Be respectful to authorities and elders’; followed by ‘Be helpful’. ‘Be a good leader’ ranked 11th on the list while ‘Share your point of view’ ranked second last, just above …. ‘Be a good athlete’!
How do we break the cycle? How do we build leadership aspiration in girls and young women, and support them to reach their full potential. There is no easy answer. From social causes, to cultural constructs, to organisational and policy rigidity, dismantling the barriers faced by women has been slow. This does not deny the fact, however, that women’s leadership in business, in politics, and in the community is imperative. Women have been at the helm of society since the beginning of time, and we know gender diversity provides diversity of thought, diversity of skills, better governance and organisational performance, and a broader and deeper pool of talent.
The fact remains that women are significantly underrepresented in leadership positions around the globe. Although the education gender gap is closing, the average income of women is still well below that of men, labour force participation remains staggeringly low, and progress in balancing the genders in leadership positions is painstakingly slow. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 it could take up to 202 years to reach economic gender equality. And this is not just a reflection of emerging countries.
So the challenge is multi-faceted. From access to education and developing digital literacy, to establishing organisational structures and attitudes that provide women with opportunities to succeed is paramount in shifting the gender equality dial.
Gender equality is particularly important in a country such as India. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute identifies India has having the highest relative potential for additional GDP growth from advancing women’s equality. It estimates a GDP boost of about $0.7 trillion above business-as-usual in 2025 if India’s female labour-force participation rate were to grow by 10%. On the other hand, it is well documented that about 50% of Indian women drop out of the management pipeline before assuming senior roles, leading to very few women in the boardroom. So the challenge is multi-faceted. From access to education and developing digital literacy, to establishing organisational structures and attitudes that provide women with opportunities to succeed is paramount in shifting the gender equality dial. As is the case for all global organisations, it is essential that gender-based stereotypes are eroded, that strong female role models are evident in any workplace to build aspiration, that women are mentored and coached to develop their sense of self-belief and self-confidence, and that organisations provide flexible and empathic environments to accommodate women’s family needs. There is much to gain socially and economically if the gender scale is balanced.
Dr Amalia Di Iorio is a Professor of Finance at La Trobe University and Associate Pro VC Academic
Partnerships. The views expressed are the author’s own.
La Trobe University is collaborating with Australia India Institute, Delhi to host a panel discussion on Women in Leadership on 4th September 2019 in Mumbai.
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