BY: Samantha Moser & Kristina Jansen
In the aftermath of the financial crisis that shook the United States and global markets in 2008, a panel of financial experts gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and debated whether the collapse was associated with masculine, risk-taking characteristics, exemplified by the statue of a bull on Wall Street.
Referring to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers investment bank, Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), argued the crisis would have been less severe, or even nonexistent, “if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.”
In a world where only 2 percent of banks have women as CEOs, there is every reason to consider how things might change if women and men held positions of power in equal numbers throughout the world. Female leaders would be “more prudent, less inclined to the kinds of reckless decision-making that provoked the crisis,” said Lagarde.
In the end, the panel agreed, Lehman Sisters would’ve made much less money during boom times but would probably still be around today.
Lagarde explains that decision-making circles with diverse voices perform better because more ideas and perspectives are presented, explored and ultimately, included. “And it’s not just diversity based on gender, it’s a diversity that is based on gender, on colors, on religion, on background, on education.”
2019: the Year after the “Year of the Woman”?
Last year, elections around the world offered hope for gender equality and the equal representation of women. It was also the first full year of the #MeToo movement, which continues to keep the pressure on ousting powerful men who take advantage of women and ending the pervasive abuse that has been documented in sectors ranging from Hollywood to the restaurant industry. Its power has grown exponentially as women from all parts of the world gain confidence to speak out against injustices that were previously silenced.
Though his tenure in charge may be short-lived, Spain’s socialist Prime Minister made history & headlines last June, when he appointed women to fill 11 out of 17 cabinet positions, the first time that women outnumbered men in a European country’s leadership.
A few months later, a record number of women ran for elected office in the United States–and won. The results of the midterm elections redefined political representation in the US. Of the 127 women serving on the 116th U.S. Congress, 47 are women of color. Among the (victorious) women are Debra Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress.
Compared to previous elections, 2018’s so-called “Year of the Woman” is living up to its name, but in reality, women still remain underrepresented in Congress. Although over 50 percent of the U.S. population is female, women hold only about one in five positions in the 116th Congress. So while we are seeing progress in evening out of the distribution of powerful roles, there is still work to be done.
The U.S. currently ranks 78th for women’s representation in national legislatures around the world, a significant improvement from last year, when the U.S. was ranked 101.
At the top of the list is Rwanda, where women have won 61.3 percent of the lower house and 38.5 percent of the upper house, the highest number of women elected government officials worldwide.
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, despite the United States’ mediocre rankings, a majority of Americans say they would like to see more women in top leadership positions – not only in politics but also in the corporate world. Overall, the public sees the benefits of female leadership but for many, it remains challenging to pinpoint exactly why fair representation is something politics and businesses should strive for.
Closing gender gaps in the workplace is a prerequisite to achieving gender equality in society, and, economically speaking, narrowing the gender gap could add $12 trillion to global GDP by 2025, according to the landmark McKinsey Global Institute report, Women Matter. “I believe that empowered women change society. The data tells [this to] us,” said Melinda Gates in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2018 Annual Letter.
Gender Equality and Female Leadership
Despite the evidence that continues to show a clear link between gender-diverse leadership and better corporate performance, women are not moving rapidly into senior management. The dichotomy between oft-stated goals of gender parity, and the slow advancement of women into top management positions has led researchers to ask what’s going on, and some have labeled it a “second generation gender bias”. Internalized cultural ideas about what success looks like, about what a leader looks like can get in the way. So that even when women are in positions of power, they might find it hard to challenge this identity and feel comfortable with their leadership role.
Charged with bringing diversity and equality to the center of business, Luly de Samper is at the forefront of developing female leaders in Latin America through her involvement in the Johnson & Johnson Women’s Leadership & Inclusion (WLI) initiative. De Samper, as a working woman in Colombia, uses her own experiences to best address the specific challenges that Latina employees face. In her discussing her project goals to create a more equal workforce, de Samper addresses one of the gravest challenges in Latin America – the prevailing patriarchal mindset.
This mentality informs men and women equally, making it a challenge to move away from the notion of an inferior gender. Women find it challenging to advance in male-dominated fields, and men often avoid exploring careers that have become labeled “female”, even when these careers have great earning potential, like nursing or caregiving. The imbalance of masculine and feminine energies permeates our world as society elevates aggressive, competitive, hierarchical values over traits more associated with the feminine. This masculine culture infuses how we typically understand leadership while being nurturing, collaborative, or intuitive – all characteristics of the feminine – are devalued, despite being essential in a healthy corporate culture.
The celebration of stereotypically masculine traits which favor goal oriented and forceful initiative in leadership infuses international corporate culture. “Feminine” qualities may extend across cultures, causing difficulties for members of different backgrounds when it comes to advancement within a multinational corporation. Nagisa Inoue, a Japanese executive at Goldman Sachs, argues that breaking the glass ceiling requires a cultural shift. She points out the limited advancement of Japanese nationals within multinational firms, which is partly due to the Japanese emphasis on working hard while keeping your head down and a strong avoidance of risk. “In Japan,” she writes, “working hard, playing by the rules, and getting older are the keys to promotion.” But these traits alone will not lead to advancement in multinational firms, where strategic risk-taking and standing out is what advances your career.
For Japanese women, gender is a double whammy. Japan is a highly masculine society that drives for perfection and is notorious for workaholism. Women who strive for professional success face intense social pressure, as having a job is seen as a betrayal to their obligations as wives and mothers. In reality, this is not that different in many cultures around the world.
Professors of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra and Jennifer Petriglieri argue that “cultural beliefs about gender, as well as workplace structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently favor men….hinder junior women’s transitions to more senior roles.” They introduce the term “impossible selves” to describe how these cultural prescriptions for leadership identity and behavior feel unattainable for junior women, and detail the ways that internalized beliefs about what makes a leader in a corporate setting, versus what makes one a “good woman” can undermine the careers of even the most capable and ambitious women. Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In is perhaps the most well-known examination of how women can find it challenging to catapult into leadership in business.
To spur real change however, corporations ought to embrace a diverse spectrum of workplace and business approaches to remedy the unconscious biases and corporate culture that keep them from finding gender parity within their leadership. The insistence that women, or men who possess more feminine qualities, must become comfortable being aggressive self-promoters to adhere to prevailing corporate values misses the point. Despite the important conversations that Sandburg sparked with Lean In, the work has been criticized for its uncritical reliance on the dominant tropes of femininity, and for putting the responsibility for change so heavily on the women themselves. It also fails to imagine a world built on a different set of values: collective action, inclusiveness, racial and income equality.
The Need for Inclusivity
Just like Japanese employees face specific challenges with advancement in multinational careers, so do Latina professionals. De Samper explains that to advance women’s empowerment and unlock the potential of gender equality, a change in our cultural attitudes towards the role of women in the world of work and in society is needed. In Latin America, for example, women face distinct challenges and their experiences of inequality may differ depending on their social class, economic situation, and their religious and cultural values, says De Samper, in alignment with what some call the fourth wave of feminism.
This theme of inclusivity in feminism today aligns with De Samper’s more inclusive approach to gender equality. De Samper explains that the shift is “not just about women pushing for women—it’s about setting the imperative of a gender-diverse workforce and striving to better reflect the markets we serve. Because men are in such strong leadership roles, they play a very key part in this process.”
In business and politics, diversity brings better performance and finds solutions that reflect collective interests. The Women Matter report consistently found a positive correlation between corporate performance and the proportion of women on executive committees because a diversity of leadership styles produces policies that are more reflective of all interests. It also contributes to effective decision-making and overall performance, which is a key part of reducing global poverty levels.
Unequal power dynamics in decision-making processes is a structural cause of instability that provokes poverty. Reducing gender inequalities is vital for sustainable development and economic equality. As Lagarde explains, “if you increase…the number of women joining the workforce, getting a job, producing value, offering services, you automatically increase the size of the economy.”
The findings of the Borgen Project provides evidence of this—if female employment was equal to male employment, GDP would increase by 34 percent in Egypt and 10 percent in Japan. By challenging traditional gender roles and exposing the importance of gender balance in the workplace, the contributions of those like De Samper and Legarde reflect that supporting female leaders benefits all.
Fearless Girls – Taking up Space
On March 7, 2017, the Fearless Girl statue was installed on Wall Street, facing off defiantly against Wall Street’s iconic Charging Bull statue. While it was a bit of clever publicity to promote a “Gender Diversity” index run by State Street Global Advisors, it captured the imagination of the public and sparked many conversations about gender diversity and female leadership.
Atruro Di Modica, the Italian artist responsible for Charging Bull (which he dropped illegally in the middle of the night back in 1989) had meant it as a “symbol of prosperity and strength”. He complained that the Fearless Girl statue subverted the original intent of his art and threatened to sue to have it removed. But perhaps the conversation sparked by Fearless Girl is exactly what is needed to balance out the charging bull as a symbol of prosperity. There are other types of strength, do we need to knock down our children in the name of prosperity?
We are writing this article on March 15, 2019 – the day of the “Children’s Strike for the Climate”, an international protest where thousands of children around the world are skipping school to protest for taking climate action. The movement was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish high-school student, who’s weekly walk-outs for climate action brought her to the speaking stage in Poland for COP24 and Davos for the World Economic Forum. While leadership might be a challenge for women of a certain age in fields dominated by men, these young girls and women are leading us all towards changing the future.
Malala Yousafzai – a human rights activist, and advocate for female education – who was 17 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. “Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. It is we who make cultures and we have the right to change it and we should change it.” – Yousafzai at the Girl Summit in London She preaches that education is the first step to “eradicating extremism and ending poverty”.
Greta Thunberg: 16-year-old climate activist with the Asperger’s syndrome who is continuing her school strikes each and every Friday to ask Sweden’s government and other countries to act against climate change. This Friday, hundreds of thousands of students around the world joined her in staying home from school and demanding climate action instead. In her speech to the leaders at the Climate Conference in Poland last year, she took to the stage to call out world leaders for failing to act. Thunberg ended her speech reminding us that “real power belongs to the people.”
On Thursday, March 14th, Greta Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – and if she wins it, she’ll supplant Malala as the youngest recipient to date. It takes courage and persistence, and perhaps the “feminine” trait of looking out for others. Perhaps it will be that “mama bear” psychology that will catapult women into leadership spotlight. On reflecting where this type of courage comes from, Rose Strauss, a 19-year-old Sunrise Activist says, “It might come off as courage, but it’s just that we don’t have time to not have courage. We have to do this now.”
Additional reporting by Shaelyn McHugh & Sadie Wilbur