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Ladies and Gentlemen of the Board

January 24, 2017, by Ashley Fleming, 0 Comments

Professional women in officeGender inequality in the world of work has been a well-deserved focal point of equality debates since second wave feminism’s rise to prominence over 50 years ago. While the pressure to provide women with equal pay for equal work has borne fruit in multiple industries, women still earn an average of 72 cents for every dollar a man makes in Canada.

Gender equality has been even slower to materialise in other areas. One of the most commonly cited examples of continuing inequality in the workplace is the gender weighting at boardroom level – which, for many major corporations, remains dramatically skewed in favour of men.

As the infographic below shows, there is an uneven male/female split at the boardroom level for the current top 10 US multinationals on the Fortune 500 index, including Walmart, Exxon-Mobil and Apple. Canada’s business powerhouses don’t fare too much better, despite movement in the right direction over the past couple of years – only around 1 in 5 director-level seats are held by women here, achieving similar statistics to those outlined by the US charts below.

It probably comes as little surprise that women remain underrepresented in every case cited by the infographic – but the extent to which female employees at executive and board levels in both US and Canadian companies are outnumbered by their male colleagues is truly alarming. In the majority of cases, women account for less than 20% of either group, and in a couple of notable companies they don't even represent 1/10 of the membership!

Haven’t we come further than this?

Making this all the more baffling is the fact that women still outperform (and indeed out-participate) men in further and higher education. Women have consistently represented the majority of students enrolled in full-time Canadian undergraduate study programs since the early 1990s, and government statistics sampled in 2008 showed that 62% of all Canadian graduates were women. Likewise US women, who graduated in significantly higher numbers than men in 2015 (at a ratio of 3:2), are still earning, on average, around 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. The pattern repeats the world over, in fact: earnings disparity in Australia has hardly changed in nearly 20 years and in China the gender pay gap last year was actually shown to be widening.

None of this makes any sense from a business perspective. As Computer Weekly noted in a report on gender bias in tech industries earlier this year, 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."

Earlier this year, a major study co-authored by the Women In Retail group and management consultancy firm Elixirr interviewed 70 senior executives, both male and female, arcross 44 leading UK businesses. The research probed whether the recent demise of iconic brands like BHS and Austin Reed could be attributed to executive-level gender bias leaving big companies out of touch with their (often largely female) customer bases. Interestingly, the interviewees overwhelmingly agreed that diversity leads to more successful businesses and yet nearly 3/4 said they felt that their current employers weren't doing enough to ensure equal gender representation at the upper management levels.

It remains to be seen whether such research will inform board-level selection practices over the coming years, but the findings certainly increase the pressure on the 'old boys’ club' to expand their networks.

Infographic on gender on corporate boards


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