US looks on as others up fight against gender inequality in workplace

IMF director Christine Lagarde and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reopen debate on quotas at WEF

A file photo of employees walking in and out of a building.
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U.S. companies are facing increasing pressure to adopt policies that would raise the number of women in the workplace, and in boardrooms that still are predominantly male. And now American advocacy groups are eyeing gender quota rules in Europe, as the controversial issue surfaced among some of the international community’s most powerful women at the latest World Economic Forum meeting.

Calls for gender-equality policies in the United States have followed the implementation of measures such as California’s resolution 62, which took effect last fall. The non-binding legislative nudge “encourages” boards with nine or more members to include three women, and boards of five to eight to include at least two women within three years.

Malli Gero, co-founder and head of 2020 Women on Boards – a U.S.-based advocacy group for gender diversity in the workspace and a primary supporter of the resolution – told Al Jazeera on Tuesday that giving a voice to more women in corporate America will be “a really good thing” for everyone involved.

“We are working with our 2020 chapters to work on similar state initiatives” elsewhere in the country, she said.

But the California resolution stops short of legally enforcing gender diversity – a strategy with which Gero’s group agrees. “Here in the U.S., we don’t believe in quotas,” she said.

Echoing the contention – still widespread in the U.S. – that American business culture must value individual merit over enforcing equal opportunity, she added: “What we see is that these kinds of non-binding resolutions really make companies pay attention. We think that companies need to put on their board the people they think are going to meet the needs of the company.”

In other countries, however, governments are increasingly stepping away from this logic. Canada last week has started to force companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange to disclose how many female executives they have and to list what policies they are implementing to boost the number of women in the workplace. The measure encourages corporations to adopt gender equality as a key business priority, the Ontario Securities Commission announced last week.

And in the European Union, quotas already force companies to employ a certain percentage of women in executive positions. In Norway, which became the first country in the world to impose gender quotas on corporations before the EU made it mandatory, researchers found the measure significantly affected employment policies: For example, mixed-gender boards laid off fewer employees. The quotas have not led to more profitable business decisions overall, but women have altered the human resources strategies of some companies.

Sharon Vosmek, head of Astia, an international organization supporting female entrepreneurs, told Al Jazeera that quotas could bring about much-needed change in the U.S.

“The numbers (of female executives) are just crazy low,” she said. “In light of that, I take a pretty aggressive stance: I hate quotas but love the results. And I think it’s about time for results.”

'Gender-driven growth' at WEF

Gender quotas have recently become the subject of increasing debate among business and political leaders on the global stage. International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg took on the topic Saturday at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The vast majority of the world’s companies are led by men, and Davos – a city whose name as WEF host has become shorthand for the inner workings of the world’s financial elite – reflected this stark reality.

Only 16 percent of the delegates this year were women, down from last year’s 17 percent, and the prospects for immediate change look bleak. Over the past 15 years, women’s share of management positions at Fortune 500 companies has only increased from 11 to 17 percent, Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to expand opportunities for women and business, found.

But this year, some of the most powerful female participants at Davos said things have to change.

"I soon realized that unless we had targets, if not quotas, there was no way,” Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund and former French Minister of Finance, told an audience of global financial and political leaders during a WEF session on “gender-driven growth,” where only one panel member was a man.

Lagarde said she was once told that her career would not progress because she was a woman. She said that moment changed her mind about quotas, which she now considers a necessary tool in the struggle against gender inequality.

But other participants indicated that gender quotas on their own might not be effective enough. Facebook COO Sandberg said cultural attitudes are major obstacles in women’s paths to the top.

“Leadership is associated with masculine expectations,” Sandberg said at the WEF. “When women do the things that make them leaders, we don't like them.” And as long as that’s the case, she contended in her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead,” quotas won’t make the necessary difference since women will not be taken as seriously as their male colleagues.

On Sandberg’s point about the need to change attitudes before progress can happen, Vosmek – head of the Astia advocacy group – acknowledged the importance of revising the existing paradigm that relegates women to secondary positions.

“I think what needs to change is the tenor of the ecosystem itself,” she said. “There are many legacy attitudes, values within businesses that come out of an era of single-income-male-head-of-household families. Those legacy messages and means are all outdated.”

“I’m done trying to fix women. Or making them more like men. Or getting them ready, as if they’re not ready,” Vosmek added. “What is the next step beyond 'lean in'? I think it’s looking at networks.”

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2013 Report – which ranks countries on their ability to close the gap in political participation, health care access, economic equality and education access – showed that while the majority of countries have nearly closed the gaps between men and women in terms of having equal access to healthcare and education, other divisions remain wide.

The report said that only 60 percent of the economic outcome gaps and 21 percent of the political outcome gaps have been closed, indicating that leveling the playing field between men and women at a young age does not necessarily translate to women attaining positions of power.

To bridge that gap, the EU and countries such as Canada have resorted to legally enforceable measures to hire more women or track their progress in keeping up with their male colleagues.

Even though Gero, the cofounder of the U.S. advocacy group, said she is opposed against quotas and other legal mandates, she acknowledged, “Honestly sometimes these things are necessary to get people’s attention.”

And, commenting on the slow progress that U.S. companies have made during the past decade, she said, “If you want to increase the pace of change, what’s happening in the EU – we’re watching it.” 

With Agence France-Presse

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