PWN Rome: Gender Equality - From Ethical Topic to Strategic Asset

On the issue of gender equality, there are those who support it with a sword and those who do not support it at all.

Regardless of the viewpoints accompanying different worldviews, it is a fact that, at the current rate of progress, it will take 99.5 years to achieve full gender equality, while it will take 257 years to achieve economic parity. This is the conclusion of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2019 published in December 2020. 

The WEF has been monitoring four key indicators since 2006:

  1. participation and economic opportunities;
  2. education;
  3. health and survival;
  4. political power.

The ultimate goal is to establish and foster a confrontation between the States and Regions of the world, on the subject of gender equality.

Italy, unfortunately, has a negative record on gender equity: it ranks 76th out of 153 countries worldwide. Since 2018 it has lost 6 positions and ranks fourth from bottom at European level, followed only by Greece, Malta and Cyprus.

According to the most recent research the “she-cession” generated by Covid-19 has brought the process towards equality back several years. This recession will impact future earning opportunities of women who are now unable to work.

Anna Benini, President, PWN RomeBut if it is true that gender equality, as shown by many studies, has a fundamental impact on the prosperity of economies and societies around the world, and if it is equally true that full employment for women generates growth and competitiveness - which can be translated in points of GDP - why do most companies struggle to promote corrective actions that would lead to workplaces being more productive and guarantee longer lasting results?

The McKinsey and LeanIn study published in 2019 identified the existence of a "broken rung" that prevents women from progressing in the workplace. Access to top positions would not be the real cause of female underrepresentation in the workplace, but rather access to the managerial role. Present in many organizations, this "bottleneck" brings with it some consequences: difficulty in accessing the "C-suite", less exposure to professional experiences, fewer opportunities for training investments aimed at the development of certain key skills, such as leadership, for instance.

But also: wage differences that have a pervasive effect over time and generate a vicious spiral for women, with repercussions up to the time of retirement; and then a pipeline of talents that "leaks” dispersing resources and talents to positions of power. The impact is as simple as it is dramatic: too few women are hired or promoted to senior management positions.

In addition, the Covid-19 epidemic has disrupted workplaces in ways that could not even be imagined and is putting a strain on our economy and the way we all work. It is not difficult to draw the picture in which the workforce finds itself. Millions of professionals, in and out of organizations, are experiencing intolerable levels of stress and anxiety. And again, women are more vulnerable to the economic effects related to Covid-19, due to the already existing gender inequalities, the unpaid care work they take on for society and the fact that they operate in the sectors most impacted by this crisis, such as, for example, services.

So what to do? How can companies avoid pushing back the gender gap by years? How will they avoid losing that pool of female talent that could be in a leadership position in the coming years?

  1. Offer flexibility to receive flexibility. Recognize that we are experiencing an exceptional time of mental load and stress, in which people - and women in particular - struggle to define a boundary between professional and personal life as well as being overloaded by the need for care. Finding new ways to recognize additional free time for your employees becomes a priority. A further action may consist in communicating, explicitly and proactively, that performance and productivity will not be measured on when, where and how the work is done. Obviously, one or the other approach can be applied in synergy, as well as to different groups of the population.
  2. Listen to the emotions too. Create a culture of psychological well-being in which people feel free to express their emotional states and can also be supported with ad hoc psychological counseling courses.
  3. Minimize implicit gender biases, making them explicit through training for all employees and daily communications from senior management. A few lines even during a video call are enough to give the wrong implicit messages, which will remain forever in the mind of those who received them, "creating culture" in the organization.
  4. Implement benefit programs designed for every need. Understand what the specific needs are for each target employee. Do not offer the same benefits or services to all, but do an individual needs’ audit. In particular, focus on informal caregivers and, through a caring audit, define which benefits are of greater added value for women who take on most of the unpaid care work within the family unit.
  5. Define transparent promotion criteria. An effective promotion policy focuses on the advancement of employees based on their skills and performance. It is important to determine the minimum criteria for advancement, to make employees aware of the standards they must meet in order to obtain promotions, and to publish all vacancies so that advancement opportunities are open to all qualified candidates. Last but not least, evaluate all qualified employees for promotion in the same way, possibly through formal assessment processes.
  6. Be transparent about the pay equity between men and women. In Italy, for example, Public and private companies employing over a hundred staff are required to draw up, every two years, a report on the situation of male and female personnel which also includes salary data. This report, which must be sent electronically to the Ministry of Labor, offers a lot of useful information for decision making in the company. Furthermore, fostering certification processes such as that proposed by EqualSalary can generate a benefit in attracting more professionals to senior managerial positions and in positioning itself as a sustainable company.
  7. Promote access to external networks, mentorship programs or internal sponsorships that allow women to feel part of an external and internal group of the company  while enhancing the skills necessary to access future leadership roles. Women can benefit further from working in gender-balanced groups.
  8. Define policies and procedures to address discrimination, equal opportunities and harassment in the workplace. The creation of a policy and a dedicated ethics line are preventive measures that can be effective, if included in a careful company policy in all phases of the organization's life, starting with recruiting.
  9. Certify your company on gender equality. , for example, aims to detect key indicators relating to the status of equal opportunities in organizational contexts and to issue certificates to companies on Gender Equality. The goal of these certifications is not only to create an internal culture attentive to inclusion, but to convey the message that gender equality is a business resource to talk about externally.

There are many actions that can be thought of to improve the situation of female employment. 

Everyone, men and women together, can indeed play an active role in reducing a gap that, if filled, would bring well-being and wealth for all.

 Author: Anna Benini, President, PWN Rome
Date: April 2021

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