Gender Gaps and the Glass Cliff

Gender Gap Report

Despite a slight narrowing of the gender gap in 2018, a new report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) shows that women are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to leadership roles. Meanwhile, the higher they climb, the more gender bias and obstacles they encounter.

Among the Global Gender Gap Report 2018 findings are the fact that proportionately fewer women than men are participating in the labour force or in political life; access to health and education, and political empowerment suffered reversals for women; and most strikingly, that given the current rate of change, the overall global gender gap will take 108 years to close – while economic gender parity in the workplace remains 202 years off. On the slightly positive side, the world has closed 68% of its gender gap, and Iceland remains the world’s most gender-equal country. But the UK still lags behind Germany and France in the equality stakes.

The report, released a month before world leaders and CEOs meet in Davos at the end of this month, was measured across four key pillars – economic opportunity; political empowerment; educational attainment; and health and survival – and economically, at least, showed a marginal improvement on the previous year in the 144 countries surveyed. Nevertheless, there is still a disproportionate number of female leaders – 34 per cent globally, and fewer women in the workforce overall, ascribed to factors such as automation impacting on traditionally female roles.

Women are also being under-represented in employment spheres requiring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) knowledge and skills. Among AI professionals, women currently represent only 22 per cent of the workforce – a gender gap three times the size of other industries. According to data from LinkedIn, women in AI were more likely to hold positions such as researchers, teachers and data analysts; while the more senior and lucrative roles, such heads of IT, were more frequently filled by men.

Elsewhere, education, health and politics were still areas for concern; the gender gap widened in these areas, ascribed to reasons such as a lower number of women in head-of-state roles worldwide, albeit political empowerment has improved in 22 Western economies.

Nationally, Iceland held onto its pole position as the most gender-equal country for the 10th consecutive year, having closed its gender gap by more than 85.8 per cent. While other top 10 economies included Sweden, Finland and Norway. Further afield, Nicaragua, in fifth place, has closed its gap by 80.9 per cent, while Namibia’s high showing is partly down to more women in its parliament. The UK, meanwhile, just scraped into the 15th place, trailing behind other developed G20 countries such as France and Germany in the World Economic Forum report. Overall, Western Europe has the highest level of gender parity, at 75.8 per cent.

Observers of the report have cited the ‘Glass Cliff’ as one of the hindrances to gender progress and a way in which businesswomen continue to be stereotyped. A phenomenon coined by British academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam following a study of FTSE 100 companies, it refers to the situation in which women are often appointed to top jobs during a crisis, or when an organisation is on the verge of failing (such as the appointment to prime minister of Iceland's Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, at a time of economic crisis). Should the business then collapse, their ability is typically called into question and pinpointed as the main cause, rather than other factors that may have adversely affected the company. Female leaders were also reported to be subject to more criticism than male counterparts, and according to a study by the University of Alabama, female CEOs are 45 per cent more likely to be fired from their own companies than male CEOs – in some cases, even after they’ve fixed the problem.

The WEF’s findings come two years after the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY revealed that 60 per cent of businesses worldwide have no female board members, and fewer than five per cent have a female CEO. However, the report, ‘Is Gender Diversity Profitable? Evidence from a Global Study’ also showed that having more female leaders could significantly increase profitability.

“The economies that will succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be those that are best able to harness all their available talent,” said the World Economic Forum’s founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab. “Proactive measures that support gender parity and social inclusion and address historical imbalances are therefore essential for the health of the global economy as well as for the good of society as a whole.”