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A sustainable future must include women

Four places to close the gender gap

Women make up 50% of the population and have had the vote for 110 years, yet the World Economic Forum estimates it will take another 132 to reach full gender parity. How can we close the gender gap across four clear areas?

Imagine you’re starting your own travel business. You decide you need to do some market research on customer needs and an old college friend, let’s call him John, offers to help. After two weeks, he comes back to you and tells you there’s a huge demand for physically demanding adventure holidays.

You ponder this and ask a female friend, Jane, what she thinks. She’s aware of John’s market research and tells you that while John spoke to her husband, he didn’t speak to her. So, you ask John about his approach, and it turns out he has only spoken to his male friends at the rugby and golf club.

Would you base your business case on information like that? No, of course not! It would be ludicrous to pin all your hopes and dreams on what one very specific demographic has to say. And yet, that’s exactly what many businesses and governments do every day.

21st century societies and businesses are still inherently male - dominated and built around a ‘Reference Man’ with a man’s physical attributes. This means that although statistically, women are less likely to be involved in a car accident, they are 50% more likely to die in a crash because the car is not designed to provide them with maximum protection – female crash test dummies were only introduced in 2011.

In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez notes that the average smartphone is 5.5 inches long – too big for most women’s hands. It also means it cannot be used in one hand, and so limits its usefulness.

Averages and norms are dictated by a world designed and built by men, which naturally makes it more challenging for women to thrive.

Gender parity may not be achieved until 2154

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2022 Global Gender Gap Index reviews a range of metrics to measure progress to gender parity. The measures include Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment. And while it notes that the global gender gap is closing, based on the current rate of progress, it will take a further 132 years to achieve full parity across all of them.

Despite decades of equal pay law, women are still paid less than similarly qualified male colleagues doing the same job. The average gender pay gap is 10% in the US, 13% in the EU and 15% in India. This is due to fewer women reaching senior leadership or board level roles and, in part, to the fact that in addition to their paid work, many women do unpaid work at home, for example, looking after young or elderly family members. And although this care provides important socioeconomic benefits, this work is not assigned an economic value.

Gender equality delivers socioeconomic benefits

Gender equality is required for a fair and equitable society and a more sustainable future. It’s also the bedrock of better performing economies and companies. It’s no coincidence that some countries with the greatest gender equality are among the top 20 happiest countries in the world and the top 30 countries with the highest GDP per capita.

According to UN Women, a United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, economies will grow if more women work. The presence of women in the workforce increases economic diversification and income equality and often introduces different but complementary skills to the labor force.

A 2018 study by consultancy firm PWC claims that increasing the female employment rates in OECD countries to match that of Sweden could boost global GDP by over US$6 trillion. An IMF report found that female presence on the board enhances profitability. It shows that adding one more woman to senior management or on the corporate board – while keeping the size of the board unchanged – is associated with an 8–13 basis points higher return on assets.

Given that countries, businesses and communities can benefit and prosper with greater gender equality, it’s pretty hard to justify inaction on gender equality.

Benefits of gender diversity

  • Greater skills diversity in the market
  • More profitable companies
  • Higher GDP
  • Happier countries

Four focus areas to close the gender gap

 
As with all inclusion and diversity challenges, the intention should be to create a level playing field, provide equal opportunities for women and men, and treat them the same way throughout their lives.

We looked at how digital inclusion can help to close opportunity gaps in education and business. Advanced connectivity and digital services and skills play a key role in helping women–and other social groups–to freely access information on education, health and welfare, and business and financial advice. It can also connect them with a network of female peers who can provide support and mentoring. However, ensuring gender parity requires systemic legislation, education, business and leadership changes.

1. The law struggles to help

The solution may lie in transparent Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) reporting, as shown by BlackRock

Socioeconomic changes sometimes require state legislation that imposes financial penalties for non-compliance. Equal pay and anti-discrimination laws empower women to challenge the state or employers if they suffer discrimination. However, if the national culture remains patriarchal or workers’ unions are weak, this can become an expensive or unsuccessful route for women to pursue.

According to World Bank’s report ‘Women, Business and the Law 2022’, there are only 12 countries in the world that, from a legal perspective, offer full equal rights for men and women. These are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

But another route could be opening. ESG reporting and strategies are second only to financial reporting for companies to attract investment. As well as addressing climate change concerns and public demand, inclusion and diversity are among the many social measures included in ESG reporting. Investment funds such as BlackRock see ethical ESG businesses performing better than their peers. They and others are demanding ESG commitments from companies they invest in.

2. Education could be key

Organizations like the World Bank are providing some excellent initiatives to educate young girls in underrepresented subjects across Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent

Intervention is required to encourage girls and women to think differently about their roles and what they can achieve. According to UNICEF, 129 million girls do not receive a school education. In developed markets, primary and secondary education is mandatory. It is usually state funded and available for all children.

In developing markets, fewer girls progress beyond primary education even where education is state funded and despite the socioeconomic benefits it brings. Investing in secondary education for girls in these markets could see their lifetime earnings increase dramatically, maternal mortality rate fall and national growth rates rise.

Consequently, the World Bank is undertaking several educational interventions in Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent. These aim to remove the cost barrier to girls’ schooling, promote safe and inclusive learning environments and improve the quality of education.

The World Bank also places an emphasis on increased female enrolment in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) subjects. This is critical, as STEM skills are necessary for women to help develop our high-tech digital world. Yet according to OECD research, women across all markets are less likely to pursue these subjects.

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3. Companies must lead the way in business

Tech giants like Salesforce are already taking concrete steps to tackle the gender pay gap

The patterns we see in society and education continue in the business world and are compounded by sectoral segregation. Women tend to be over-representated in relatively low-paying sectors, such as care, health and education, and these highly feminized jobs tend to be undervalued.

Some businesses have stepped up to address the issue. Companies like Salesforce have actively sought to rebalance pay. Between 2015-21, it spent $22 million to address any unexplained differences in pay between men and women. In 2016, Forbes reported that over 50 US-based companies have committed to equal pay. Our People and Planet Report details our own ESG goals and in-depth information about our People and Talent Development programs to ensure gender balance at board level and in decision making, and we’re making great progress.

A root and branch review is required by businesses to take positive action across all industry sectors because, as we’ve already seen, ultimately, businesses benefit and societies thrive when gender equality exists.

4. Greater equality is needed in leadership

The United Nations looks to forge female leadership around the world through three collaboration projects

There is ample evidence that having more women in education and business delivers socioeconomic benefits. However, ensuring that women can reach or lead a board of directors or the highest level of government still requires work. For example, in 2021, only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women and although there are just under 200 countries in the world, only 13 countries have a woman Head of State, and 15 countries have a woman Head of Government.

Women lack an equivalent of ‘the old boys’ network in the working world. Women’s networks are stronger when it comes to supporting the family, but there are fewer role models and mentors able to guide younger women in the business world.

However, this can change. Advanced connectivity solutions and digital services put more information and contacts and support within their reach. For example, the United Nations runs online and in-person programs globally to encourage young women to take STEM subjects, start their own businesses and take leadership roles.

The UN Women’s Empowerment Principles encompass three major collaboration projects: Action for Education, Action for Employment and Action for Leadership. These initiatives were designed to encourage women to take STEM subjects, start their own businesses and take leadership roles. It’s a topic that has gained support from senior executives in many technology companies, including Nokia and Deutsche Telekom, who see the importance of empowering women leaders in the technology sector.

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