Isn’t it strange when society looks more forward-thinking on TV than it actually is in real life? When the BBC blew everyone away with Bodyguard, terrorism thriller meets crime drama, there was one big complaint about its plotline - there were too many powerful women.
On the one hand, the parade of women portraying police chiefs, political bigwigs and expert sniper units was an act of blind ignorance to the reality of gender inequality.
On the other? It’s political correctness gone mad!
But really, what we can take away is that there’s a lot of ground to cover when it comes to women in the workplace. A lot of opportunities to create, a big imbalance to redress - and it’s businesses, not script writers, who are responsible for that. Here’s how they can do it:
1. Practice what you preach
Let’s look at the companies who have proven their commitment to reflecting the world’s rough 50:50 ratio of men to women in their workforce - from top to bottom. Because, overall, “women are underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline - especially the senior level”.
Enter IKEA Switzerland - awarded EDGE’s top gender equality certificate (the leading global standard), they excel in areas like equal pay, promotion, leadership development and company culture. While it’s that combination of different approaches that makes their workplace certifiably proactive in addressing inequality, it’s also important to lead by example.
As reported by Forbes, “Having women in senior, visible positions of authority - whether as a CEO, the direct report to a CEO or a board member - sends a powerful message, both within the organization and outside,”.
Given that just 4.4% of CEOs in the US are women, there’s still a lot of work to do… but some companies are finding ways to change this.
Businesses like Prologis, Bank of America, Target and and Moss Adams focus on mentoring women to achieve leadership roles they are qualified for, but may have once been denied due to “unconscious biases”. And tackling those biases directly, SAP Software have created a tool for detecting and removing bias (including gender bias) from business - particularly during the hiring process.
There’s a lot of routes to achieving equality in the upper echelons of business - but in this case it’s not about the journey, it’s about getting there.
2. Prepare the next generation
Companies should look inwards, but there’s no reason they can’t look outwards as well. Part of addressing gender inequality means tackling it where it starts - in childhood.
Gender-specific socialisation, lack of opportunities and differing cultural expectations all play a part in shaping the roles girls end up playing in society. Companies like Minecraft are tackling that at the root.
By joining their Block by Block programme (which uses the game as a tool for visualising physical improvements needed in a community) with The Safer Cities for Girls project, they gave girls in Hanoi a way to suggest changes to make their surrounding environment safer. They developed their tech skills, grew confidence about their opinions and had their suggestions considered by major stakeholders as a result.
Similarly, Ericsson has taken steps to give young women tech skills in India. Working with Plan India to open a dozen ICT learning centres, over the next three years they’ll be helping over 15,000 15-25 year olds to build transferable skills for their futures. Their efforts are also helping to change attitudes about girls and schooling - essential in a country where almost half don’t reach year 10.
3. Build pathways in male-dominated fields
Minecraft and Ericsson are focusing on the next generation, giving them tools to succeed early, but there are also companies opening the door for adult women who never had opportunities like this. Companies can work to promote deserving female employees to higher positions, and give them the same opportunities to progress once they’re in, but there are some industries where getting in is the problem.
We’ve already touched on the many factors that affect where women end up in the world of work - and this is complicated by some industries being so male-dominated that bias, lack of confidence and few opportunities means they never had a chance.
Companies like Sky are challenging this. Their Get into Tech programme aims to redress the gender imbalance in technology-based roles in particular, offering training and support to women to increase the number working in the industry.
Pact Coffee is trying to do its part too. We’ve started working with the Asomuprisma Women’s Association, a group dedicated to changing what it means to be a women in the coffee industry. Formed of childhood friends turned wives and daughters of coffee farmers, the women in this group realised they deserved to have a voice in the industry.
Before its formation, some women weren’t even allowed to leave their farms - confined to domestic tasks like cooking or child-rearing. Now they own a cafe on rented land, which serves as a hub for the sale of the coffee they produce.
We’re working with them to support their progress in affecting real chance, though there’s a long way to go yet. Resistance from the male leaders on their farms, patriarchy-led decision making and pervasive attitudes (both external and internalised) about gender roles are still strongly present. But it’s a step in the right direction.
We are committed to working closely with the women of Asomuprisma. We’ve already featured their coffee on our menu, and are currently looking into funding a Phase 2 programme for some of the farms that make up the group.
Our hope is that the personal successes individual farms experience as a result of this will be recognised by the community in general, demonstrating the positive impact the Asomuprisma Women’s Association is having… but also, ultimately, changing attitudes about women in coffee.
**Why should companies care? **
For some businesses, ethics and social justice are a big part of their brand identity. But for others, it’s just not the main priority - so why should those businesses bother?
For one, it makes economic sense. The McKinsey Global Institute has found that “the world economy could add trillions of dollars in growth in the next ten years” if countries meet targets for increasing the presence of women in the workforce. And if your motivations are a little closer to home, you’re in luck - McKinsey, the consulting firm, found that companies with a proportionate gender balance are 15% more likely to have higher returns than the national average.
Whether you care about changing society for the better, or about making a profit, it’s clear - gender equality in business makes sense.
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