Gender inequality is prevalent in the UK and globally – not least in boardrooms and at senior levels. What can we learn from the countries that topped the Global Gender Gap Report?
Nine years ago the UK was ranked one of the world’s top 10 countries for equality but in this year’s Global Gender Gap Report the UK comes in at number 26. Despite doing well in the education and health aspects of the list’s criteria, the report, compiled by the World Economic Forum, makes clear that women are lacking in many sectors of the UK economy and have little political power.
To most businesses this won’t be news. In the UK female bosses earn on average 35% less than their male counterparts and FTSE boardrooms consist of a mere 23% women.
What is perhaps equally unsurprising is that at the top of the list we find Iceland, followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden. The Nordic countries have consistently kept the smallest gender gap since the report was first established.
Katarina Boye, an author and researcher at Örebro University in Sweden specialising in gender, family and working life, is quick to point out that Sweden is far from equal but says a longstanding political tradition is key.
“In Sweden equality has been on the political agenda since the 70s when the gender-neutral parental insurance was introduced. It’s been important from a political point of view so it affects both policies and institutions and of course also norms and values.”
How to bridge the gender gap
When it comes to economic opportunities and the number of women at executive level, Sweden is only slightly ahead of the UK but the public debate surrounding the issue differs greatly.
Amanda Lundeteg, CEO of Allbright, an organisation working for equality and diversity at executive business level in Sweden, says there is a clear path that companies can take in order to bridge the gender gap.
“The businesses that succeed in promoting women are those that make their mind up; that have a CEO who makes it clear that this is a prioritised question,” says Lundeteg.
The next move is strategic management; setting goals and measuring them, and the third step is one that might prove most difficult for the UK.
“It very much comes down to scrutinising our own culture, looking at why men reward men and not focusing on efforts that mean women themselves should identify what they need to do in order to progress.”
Lundeteg doesn’t have much time for initiatives that teach women how to speak up or negotiate better salaries.
“They cement the idea that this is an issue for women that women need to solve, despite having been in majority at university and having done better academically than men for several decennia. The issue is rather about scrutinising the norm.”
Equality is good for business
Recruitment processes are also central to the issue and in the UK the 30% Club, a group of business leaders committed to better gender balance in business, has set up a voluntary code for executive search firms.
EDGE, a global business certification standard for gender equality, works with companies in the UK. CEO Aniela Unguresan says equality is good for business.
“Studies show that companies with better gender diversity not only have a better financial performance but that those companies that have a better gender balance at a board level have a better stability of their share prices on the stock market.”
Unguresan isn’t surprised that the Nordic countries do so well when it comes to equality and she says it is closely linked to the legislated shared parental care.
“We hear so often that the Nordic countries are so rich that they can afford all these policies, well, no, it is the other way around. They are there because they knew how to make use of their entire pool of talent, men and women alike.”
Saadia Zahidi, head of gender parity programme at the World Economic Forum, is of similar opinion: “Their [Nordic countries] success lies in going beyond closing the education gap to create the right set of conditions that have allowed women to go on and achieve their full professional potential.
“This creates a virtuous circle, enabling these countries to optimise their talent and achieve a return on investment in education that has contributed to long term, sustainable growth.”
Women and men need to share responsibility
Earlier this month Facebook and Apple announced the employee “perk” of paying for women’s eggs to be frozen so that they can have children later in life. When I put this to the Swedish experts they are puzzled. By freezing eggs the issue is only postponed and women are still seen as a less secure investment.
“We need to focus on women and men sharing responsibility,” says Lundeteg.
Today Swedish parents can split parental leave and, although mothers typically take 76% of it, stay-at-home dads are increasing. A more equal division of the parental leave would, Boye argues, have a positive effect on the number of women in business.
“It would probably also affect the employer’s expectations; a more equal distribution would create more similar expectations of women and men.
“How we can create company culture that allow men and women to get out of the gender straightjacket of men being the breadwinners and women being the caregivers, that is the real challenge,” says Edge’s Unguresan.
Finding solutions that actually work may seem hard – but it doesn’t have to be. Swedish architect firm Liljewall have always taken equality seriously and their practical solutions include encouraging employees to take meetings before 3pm so that parents can pick up kids from school.
“It’s not just a gender issue as we see it, there’s many more things that we read into the word equality,” says CEO Per-Henrik Johansson.
“We want our company to mirror the society in which we live,” he says.
The debate about equality continues worldwide and the potential is clearly there for the UK to become more equal – and for business to not just mirror but help achieve that.