News & Views

Executive Update: Closing the gender gap can eliminate a big roadblock to growth

The following is an article by Lise Kingo, CEO & Executive Director of the UN Global Compact, published on 7 March 2017 on CNBC.com

Just one year ago, when surveying the representation of women in the global workplace, I asked whether we were amidst a “snowball” moment or a “Sisyphus” moment – meaning whether all the hard-won advancements in gender equality over the last few decades were building momentum towards break through, or taking two steps back with every step forward.

This year, on International Women’s Day 2017, I think many international business leaders are asking the same question. We appear to be amidst a worldwide inflection point, and the answer is not entirely clear.

Despite global recognition that women’s empowerment is good for business, the economy and society, many women of the world today do not feel equally valued. Many workplaces are too dominated by unconscious bias against women, and it is the role and responsibility of the global business community take this fundamental problem seriously.

In the last year we’ve witnessed more women of all backgrounds come together to champion their own rights, desires and beliefs. As they join arms and voices, more attention is being turned to important issues like equal opportunity, parental leave, executive representation and pay equity. But there is still much work to do.

Women’s participation in the global labor force is actually on the decline, dropping from 52.4 percent in 1995 to 49.6 percent in 2015, according to the International Labour Organization. And according to a 2016 review of 1,000 listed companies by Bloomberg LP, the average representation of women in leadership was 23 percent in senior management; 21 percent on boards. Among those companies, 4 percent have a female chairperson and only 3 percent have a female CEO.

Gender bias has long been a roadblock to establishing better representation in high-level corporate leadership for women – despite the fact that if there was gender quality in the workforce, the global economy could gain as much as $28 trillion by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. So why are business leaders still holding women and the economy back? It’s simple: their biases – which are undermining the future of women – are invisible to them.

There are unconscious and conscious factors influencing gender bias in business and concrete ways leaders can unwind them. Adopting a mindset of a gender champion is a first step. If business leaders can shift from unconsciously gender-biased decisions to consciously championing women, imagine the possibilities for women to be treated fairly at work, rise through development opportunities, and increase the health and safety of both women and men in the workplace.

Fortunately, women are already blazing the trail towards consciously championing equality. First and foremost, women are taking their own steps to assume leadership positions by becoming their own bosses. Women now make up 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the United States — the highest percentage since 1996, according to the 2016 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity. Yet, according to the Global Banking Alliance for Women, 80 percent of women-owned small and medium enterprises with credit needs are un-served or under-served.

With more women setting the example for what gender equality can look like, business leaders have an opportunity to watch, listen and learn what’s possible with women leading business – and take action to support and/or partner with them for mutual and societal benefit. But in order to unleash the possibilities, they must be willing to acknowledge that gender bias does exist, and it can be an unconscious attitude that even the most well-intentioned CEO may hold.

Because there is no time to wait and the business, economic and social gains of gender equality are significant, we are working to equip business leaders with a tool to identify their own gender bias and find practical solutions to consciously champion equality.

With the release of the Women’s Empowerment Principles Gender Gap Analysis Tool this week, which helps the global business community identify their own gender bias and suggests practical solutions to consciously champion gender equality, the UN Global Compact, together with partners including UN Women and the Inter-American Development Bank, empowers every business to take action now, without delay. This is just one step of many we urge the business community to take action – today and throughout the year.

International Women’s Day provides us with a moment to recognise and celebrate gender equality, but it is only the start. This is clearly the time for action. We can unlock growth by breaking the bias on gender, but only if our sustained actions create a snowball of change. We must move forward, not back.