Gender diversity: a sustainability issue

30 June, 2020Caroline Murray

In the first working paper from LIBF’s Centre for Sustainable Finance, Senior Lecturer, Caroline Murray looks at some of the barriers to improving gender equality in the workplace and asks what action companies can take.

We summarise the key points on this page, where you can also download Gender diversity: A quest for equal opportunity in financial services (pdf)

Person walking above glass ceilingIf women account for 51% of the population, achieving gender equality in the workplace might suggest 51% of jobs should be held by women.

In 2019, women represented only 39% of world employment. Research by McKinsey and Company reveals that women are less likely to be employed at entry level, despite collectively achieving a greater number of bachelors degrees than men.

At master’s and doctorate level, women continue to outperform men. Yet women ultimately only hold 38% of management roles.

Across the 32 countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), figures are lower again. Only 31.9% of managerial positions are held by women. Average female board membership across the OECD was 22.9% in 2018 and lower again (9%) in emerging markets.

Some progress is being made.

In the financial services sector, research by Oliver Wyman in 2020 reports that female representation at senior levels has roughly doubled since 2003. The average executive committee now comprises 20% women, whilst executive boards have reached 23%.

Some firms in the finance industry even boast more than 30% women at executive committee level, and 37% at board level. So, year-on-year progress is being made – but not enough.

Are male and female brains different?

Ability does not appear to pose a barrier. Contrary to some popular thought, Joel et al found that “human brains cannot be categorised into two distinct classes: male brain/female brain”. 

Hyde (2014) also carried out a substantial review revealing that differences in the abilities and qualities of men and women – including leadership effectiveness – are mainly non-existent or small. And other research confirms this.

So, if ability and qualifications don’t account for female under-representation in the workplace, could free choice account for it?

Do women choose not to progress into senior roles?

Research shows women have more life goals and may freely make different choices as they reach a particular level of seniority, potentially prioritising non-work life. So women may indeed choose a different work-life balance to men.

However, the word ‘choice’ is important.

There is a danger that rather than through choice, gender imbalances arise in organisations through social norms, or social, economic or workplace realities. This includes:

  • the so-called ‘double burden’ or expectation that women should shoulder a disproportionate share of family and household duties
  • career disengagement from a lack of workplace support
  • a lack of role models, or,
  • the typically female trait of undervaluing their skills compared to the value that would be placed on the same skills by a man.

The power to change

Many of the barriers to more gender equality in the workplace – and hence barriers to attaining the United Nations’ sustainable development goal (SDG) – are structural and within the power of businesses to change. They include:

  • recruitment practices which fail to target and reach women
  • corporate culture which isolates or alienates women, and
  • ·obstacles to progression such as a lack of workplace mentoring.

Then there’s the presence of gender stereotyping and implicit bias.

The US Glass Ceiling Commission’s (USGCC’s) research reveals that widely accepted stereotyping perpetuates the unfounded view that women are unsuited for senior positions.

How could we break workplace barriers down?

Educational programmes can be constructed to ensure the value of better gender diversity is understood at senior levels. Given that men still dominate boards and senior management, male advocacy of diversity is essential.

Research demonstrates the value of implicit bias training – with positive changes in cognitive-based outcomes such as:

  • knowledge and understanding
  • attitudes and perception, and
  • skill-based outcomes such as behaviour.

Outreach policies can provide information on available job opportunities.

Internships too have a place and are a popular tool in the financial services industry.

Mentoring programmes which identify and develop the women – and men – with management and leadership qualities ensure there is a mix of gender talent with the skills to progress.

Other policies can also help including:

  • flexible working arrangements
  • shared parental leave, and
  • providing support after career breaks.

By raising awareness of gender imbalances – and putting in place measures to address the underlying issues – businesses can make progress towards the UN SDG of gender equality.

This will contribute to the sustainability of their businesses at the same time.

Download and read Gender diversity: A quest for equal opportunity in financial services (pdf)

Caroline MurrayCaroline Murray is a Senior Lecturer at LIBF, specialising in ethics, financial markets, and corporate lending. Her roles have encompassed apprenticeship programme directorship, validation panel chair and external examining.

Caroline has written a number of study texts on her specialist subjects and currently sits on several committees. She has a master’s degree in Professional and Applied Ethics and has also enjoyed a long banking career.

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