In the approach to 2020, the European commission released a thematic factsheet entitled ‘Women in the Labour Market’, that outlined a focus on increasing women’s participation in the labour market. The headline target for 2020 was 75% of the population aged 20-64 to be employed by 2020 and a large feature of this was addressing the barriers to women in the workforce. Their study confirmed that women have a lower participation in the workplace across all EU member states, with women in employment more likely to work fewer hours, work in lower paying sectors and occupy lower ranking positions than men.
There are many different factors that account for this: women face challenges to entering the workforce at every level, but particularly those industries dominated by men. The European Gender Diversity Index is compiled annually by European Women on Boards and measures gender diversity in corporate leadership. They compile data from 18 member states in Europe. In the figures released for 2020, only 17% of women were found in executive positions and only 6% of women held the CEO title.
This is an increase from the previous year, but while it’s a small step in the right direction, it's still a very small figure given that half the workforce is female. So why aren’t there more women CEOs? I set out to try and compile some of the reasons below.
Women face an uneven playing field
At every level, be it in leadership or in entry level positions, before women even enter the workforce and girls are still in school, they face obstacles and discrimination. A large part of this has to do with society and existing norms and the way that daughters are raised versus sons. The amount of girls who choose STEM subjects in school is still significantly lower than their male counterparts and in some respects we are doing girls a disservice by not teaching them to aspire to these roles.
In industries that are male-dominated, women are actively discouraged and treated differently to their male colleagues and have to work harder to be seen as capable of doing the same job. The gender pay gap means that they will stereotypically receive less money than a male doing the same job. All this combines to just generally make it harder for them to climb career ladders.
Key Skills are not Fostered
When employing at the higher levels of a company, certain skills are prioritised. In some respects the leadership style of aggression, dominance and ambition still rules and is a prevalent leadership style of the majority of CEOs. When women portray these characteristics, they get categorised as unfeminine, however, not portraying them risks being seen as weak and not having the skills it takes to do the job. It’s a rock and a hard place.
Even as children, girls are encouraged to foster skills such as being caring and more amenable, whereas men receive more encouragement to lead, take risks and achieve. From a young age girls are programmed to exist within the patriarchal structure of society, which leaves them at a disadvantage when applying for top leadership jobs. In some respects this sword is double-edged, there’s a lack of openness to different styles of leadership as well as a need to conform to the accepted norm.
Diversity isn’t Prioritised
Without a very real and dedicated effort to correcting the unequal balance, nothing will change. The factors that affect these statistics are complex and deep-rooted, extending way beyond the workforce to society itself. Changing these long-engrained attitudes takes a lot of time and effort.
Seeing the positive effects increasing diversity can have on how the company can perform is not taken into account so much when hiring, not when the current system isn't harming those who get to make the decisions. It takes a real and concentrated effort to correct the balance, and even to interrogate our own internal bias.
Networking is still patriarchal
The old adage that landing a job is as much about who you know as what you know still holds weight in today’s job market. Networking is an important element of reaching the top of any career ladder and in corporate industries it still is something of an ‘old boys club’, where people tend to favour others who are like them. This prejudice puts women at a disadvantage, where most board members in charge of hiring are men and more likely to pick other men that they recognise themselves in.
Lack of Leadership and Development programs
Many networks exist that support and foster women, providing them with mentors and programs, while also giving them opportunities to meet other women in similar industries. However, these remain very separate from the mainstream programs that are made up of a majority of men, so it doesn’t really put them in touch with the people they are competing against. In some respects, it can be imagined as a sort of pipeline, where some way up the shoot there’s a block and that this means those upper echelons remain out of reach.
Society still places duty of care on women
Women are still more likely to take on the responsibility of raising children and taking care of sick or elderly relatives than men, a factor also addressed in the European Commissions report at the top of this article. Despite many countries in Europe having mandates for both paternity and maternity leave, there are widespread variations across the continent in both duration and uptake . A precedent needs to be set that both sexes have the responsibility fo balancing their work and family life. In some respects these are norms that are still ingrained into society and until this balance is addressed, the effects will also still be felt in the workforce.
A meme made its way around the internet last year that highlighted that many of the countries with the lowest COVID mortalities were in fact those led by women- New Zealand, Germany, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Upon fact checking, it appears that this is actually based on statistics, with countries governed by a female leader faster to respond and with fewer confirmed deaths when looked at as death toll per capita.
It has been proven time and time again that women can exceed in positions of leadership, and that actually prove one of the keys to its future success by helping diversify the voices. So it's no longer a question of if companies should hire more women CEOs, but why aren't they? The road to progress is slow, and reminds us that while much has been achieved in the last few decades for women’s rights, much is still to be done.