International Women’s Day (IWD), held annually on March 8, provides an opportunity to gauge and celebrate progression worldwide. And while there are numerous reasons to be optimistic this time, a year after most of the world’s coronavirus restrictions were removed, there is also considerable room for improvement.
For instance, a week before IWD 2023, which is themed #EmbraceEquity, it was announced in the UK that FTSE 350 companies had achieved the target of boards with 40 percent women three years ahead of the 2025 deadline—a three percent increase in a year. A decade ago, 152 FTSE 350 companies had no female board members.
The 40.2 percent figure elevates the UK to second globally regarding the percentage of women on boards, behind only France, which enforces a quota system rather than a voluntary system. However, with only 13.8 percent of women in executive director roles across the FTSE 350, more must be done.
Indeed, IBM and Chief’s third annual survey of over 2,500 organizations in 12 countries, published a week before IWD 2023, found fewer than half (45 percent) of businesses had made gender equity in leadership a top priority. The report pointed out that the “optimism about achieving gender equity is growing,” yet it “doesn’t match reality—the leadership pipeline for women has hollowed out in the middle.”
Nevertheless, Kemi Badenoch, the UK government’s business and trade secretary, and women and equalities minister, said it was important to acknowledge steps towards greater diversity. “Change doesn’t always require top-down interventions but can occur when everyone is pushing in the same direction,” she said. Badenoch urged businesses to “keep up this momentum to achieve better balance in leadership positions as well as in boardrooms.”
There were similarly encouraging signs in other parts of the world. For example, Ingka Group, IKEA’s largest retailer, which operates in 31 countries, revealed 45 percent of the organization’s country CEOs are female, and women make up roughly half of all leadership positions.
Netherlands-based Ulrika Biesèrt, Global People and Culture Manager, called for all businesses to follow Ingka Group’s lead. “Around the world, fair and equitable opportunities for women are, at best, stalling,” she said. “We all must do more to achieve gender parity.”
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) latest Global Gender Gap Index, which benchmarks 146 countries, calculated that in 2022 the gender gap was closed by 68.1 percent. The report noted that it would take 132 years to achieve complete parity at the present rate of progress—a slight four-year improvement on the 2021 projection. The trends leading up to 2020 suggested the gap would close within a century, though, indicating the “generational loss” caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Currently, Scandinavian countries lead the way, with Iceland the only economy to have closed more than 90 percent of the gender gap. Finland (86 percent), Norway (84.5 percent), New Zealand (84.1 percent), and Sweden (82.2 percent) complete the top five in the rankings. Perhaps surprisingly, Rwanda (81.1 percent), Nicaragua (81 percent), and Namibia (80.7 percent) are in the top 10.
Many top-rated countries have imposed laws to speed up gender pay parity. Businesses have an essential role to play, argued Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director at the Geneva-headquartered WEF. “While more women have been moving into paid work over the last decades and, increasingly, into leadership positions in industry, there have been continued headwinds: societal expectations, employer policies, the legal environment, and the availability of care infrastructure.”
Zahidi stated that the economic and social “consequences of the pandemic and geopolitical conflict have paused progress and worsened outcomes for women and girls around the world.”
Conversely, social attitudes around equity have been transformed by the last three years’ events. Plus, there was evidence that the shift to more flexible working policies accelerated by the coronavirus fallout in some industries had been more favorable to women.
In February 2023, following the latest results of a worldwide four-day-working week trial, behavioral scientist Dr. Dale Whelehan, CEO of 4 Day Week Global— the charity facilitating the six-month experiments—said: “While both men and women benefit from a four-day week, women’s experience is generally better. This is the case for burnout, life and job satisfaction, mental health, and reduced commuting time.”
He added that shifting to more flexible working policies would likely accelerate gender parity in the coming years. “Encouragingly, the burden of non-work duties appears to be balancing out, with more men taking on a greater share of housework and childcare.”
In certain industries—especially technology—the pace of progress is glacial. A recent womenintech.co.uk survey, of over 500 women operating in the space, showed 91% of respondents believed there were more men than women in tech—a 9% rise from the last research from 2019.
Helena Nimmo, Chief Information Officer at Endava, a London-based software company, said: “In 2023, we still seem to be stuck in this loop of limitations when it comes to getting women into technology.” She argued that having women with tech knowledge and experience in positions of power is particularly crucial in the post-pandemic, digital age. “Women make up half the global population, which half of our users are female. Not having that representation within the business does a disservice to the solutions we’re able to offer as an industry.”
It’s a similar situation in the US, according to Ensono’s annual Speak Up Report 2022. The research found that 60 percent of women working in technology had been told by their current employer that a lack of training or skills development was limiting their career advancement. Yet just over a third (35 percent) of US companies offer fully-paid education outside of the organization and an official mentorship program.
Finally, Matt Foster, Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Ogilvy UK—which boasts a leadership team of 66 percent women—explained how the theme for IWD 2023, #EmbraceEquity, could be confusing for business leaders. “It’s problematic because people don’t understand what equity is, yet it is critical to everything we want to try and achieve,” he said. “It doesn’t help that ‘equity’ comes from the same Latin route as ‘equality’—people conflict the two.”
Foster added: “We don’t live in an equal world. The systems we work in are not equal. But equity is very different. Equity essentially means you have to create equitable conditions to reach a stage of equality, and in the case of IWD the aim is to reach gender parity.”
Clearly, words and deeds matter for IWD 2023. And the onus, increasingly, is on business leaders to spur progress for women and in other ways from the inside out.