2016 was a tumultuous business year on many fronts, but not all of the shake-ups were negative ones – notably, pressure continued to be exerted from all directions on hiring committees and equal pay policies, helping to ensure that the slow but steady progress we’ve made towards workplace gender equality in recent years continued moving in the right direction. In particular, it was a good year for women-led startups, which claimed a larger market share than ever before.
Despite this, one thing that didn’t really change much (and hasn’t for decades) was the gender makeup of large corporations at executive and board level. A study co-authored by UK management consultancy firm Elixirr and the international Women In Retail group questioned 70 senior executives (male and female) from 44 top British companies about the current state of play in the nation’s boardrooms, and the responses came down overwhelmingly in support of the case for increased female representation. However, they also overwhelmingly suggested that not enough is currently being done to secure it.
You’ll be unsurprised to hear that this problem is far from exclusive to UK businesses; in fact, research into the executive level makeup of some of the largest and most profitable US companies was recently compiled into a revealing new set of infographics, showing the shocking extent of gender imbalance at the top end of the most recent Fortune 500 list. For many huge corporations like WalMart, Apple and Exxon-Mobil, women typically represented less than 20% of the directorship, and in some cases less than 10%.
This unfortunate trend is echoed in most nations around the globe, too: Canadian women currently remain significantly underrepresented at executive level, while in Australia there has been little progress made in terms of levelling out male and female pay rates in nearly 20 years, and in China the gap has recently been shown to be widening. What really compounds these statistics is the fact that, in most developed Western nations, women continue to graduate at a significantly higher rate than their male peers (currently at a ratio of 3:2 in the US), before typically going on to earn around 75% of male salaries by average.
Even more damning is the fact that pretty much everyone appears to view this situation as disadvantageous to successful business. The aforementioned Elixirr/Women In Retail study reported universal support for the idea that fully implementing gender diversity at boardroom level would improve operations and relationships with customers. Indeed, a key driver of that research project was to examine whether gender imbalance at the upper echelons might have contributed to the demise of major brands like BHS and Austin Reed, whose directorships were reckoned by many to have lost touch with their modern, predominantly female customer bases in recent years. (This chimes with a widely circulated 2016 feature in Computer Weekly magazine, which noted in its report on gender bias in tech industries that diversity “drives greater success than individual ability does: according to McKinsey research from last year, companies that are more gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform others.”)
So will 2017 finally be the year that lessons are learned with regards to gender balance at executive and director level? The answer, of course, depends very much on how optimistic your outlook is. On the one hand, the status quo has prevailed for years despite significant progress in addressing gender issues further down the chain of command. On the other, the pressure is certainly mounting to the point where it’s actually landing directly with governments now – already this year we’ve seen UK Prime Minister Theresa May come under fire from lobbyists with regards to the gender gap at the highest levels of our civil service, and the ongoing furore around a rejected gender equality bill for directorships of Swedish businesses shows few signs of going away quietly.
Perhaps the most telling factor, though, will be a subtle but important shift in customer expectations that many companies have noted in recent years. It’s been widely reported across numerous industries that, in this age of online commerce and increasingly digitised/automated customer service, end users are placing more and more value on well-implemented support, problem-solving and detail-oriented roles within the business-customer relationship; skills that, broadly speaking, are still predominantly seen as being better delivered by women then men.
Along with the way those same technologies are rapidly reshaping our understanding of an ‘ideal’ workday structure – an ongoing development which also bodes extremely well for women, particularly where issues of maternity and childcare have historically been cited as a disadvantage – it would seem that there are indeed grounds for genuine optimism moving forward.