The business world is at an inflection point. As chief executives navigate through the unprecedented changes transforming our economies and societies, there is growing recognition of the need to address global gender equality as part of the economic recovery. Insights from the YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey, conducted in partnership with the Financial Times and the United Nation’s HeForShe initiative, uncovers some of the challenges facing gender inequality while also offering hope and inspiration for business leaders of all genders to build a more gender-equitable future. More than 2,079 YPO leaders from 140 countries responded to the survey, of whom 23% were women.
Progress and obstacles
The principle of gender equality has generally been accepted as not only a human rights issue but as a business imperative and prerequisite for a sustainable future.
As per the latest U.N. statistics, there has been progress over the last decades, including more girls going to school and more women serving in parliament and leadership positions. However, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse the limited progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights. In its 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, The World Economic Forum confirms that the pandemic has had a disproportionate economic impact on women. It now may take 267.6 years to achieve gender parity in economic participation and opportunity.
Through my work as Managing Partner at Bamboo Capital Partners, an impact investing platform launching partnerships such as the CARE-SheTrades fund, we seek to scale prosperity by giving women and other marginalized communities access to envision and make change happen for themselves. We are witnessing how women are the hardest hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19, as they disproportionately work in the informal economy and small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) service sector.
On the other end of the spectrum, women senior executives have also felt the impact. This YPO survey shows that taking care of the family during COVID-19 and their careers has placed a lot of stress on both genders. But the greatest burden was on women, who are typically the major caregivers of their households.
While the tenacity of women business leaders is admirable, I believe burnout among mothers is a serious issue that should not be under-estimated and needs to be addressed in the recovery effort. Otherwise, we risk losing women in leadership positions and future women leaders.
A longer, more winding leadership journey
Regardless of the pandemic, the YPO survey also shows that the female leadership journey takes longer. Men who responded became chief executives at an average age of 33.6. In comparison, women respondents took on the role at an average age of 35.4. And not surprisingly, one of the biggest obstacles women face in achieving gender parity, according to female respondents, is childcare and household responsibilities due to traditional gender roles.
The survey also shows that 73% of women respondents versus 42% of male respondents took leave or sacrificed career advancement because of family needs.
Through my wife’s journey, I have witnessed this dynamic firsthand. Running her own business while raising our children meant 10 years of no or lower productivity on the job front because of family obligations. It was a choice between conflicting priorities. While there is no regret, the trade-off shows the extent to which women put their career goals on hold and the lost work opportunity compared to their male counterparts.
The cultural factor
A closely related challenge revealed in the YPO survey is culture expectations related to their gender (47%). Even in Europe, it remains an issue with women expected to manage the household and do some philanthropic work on the sideline if they are fortunate to have the time and money to do so.
The pandemic recovery is an opportunity to accelerate investments in building a more flexible and understanding workplace that considers a woman’s unique life stages while nurturing a culture of gender inclusiveness. This requires a genuine long-term commitment, recognizing women for their abilities and skills rather than treating them as showcases for diversity and inclusion. ”
— Florian Kemmerich, Managing Partner, Bamboo Capital share
Interestingly, in the YPO survey, nearly two-thirds (62%) of female respondents in Africa were a founder/entrepreneur in their first leadership role compared to 41% of male respondents. As an impact investor working on projects in sub-Saharan Africa, visiting cultures in places like Rwanda and Togo, I have witnessed the power of women leaders at a community level when given the opportunity.
However, cultural constraints can also be within companies as part of an unhealthy corporate culture. In the YPO survey, female chief executives are also more likely to face balancing respect with likability and “overcoming others’ preconceptions about me” than their male counterparts. This finding shows that even women who have made it to senior positions struggle with cultural issues and gender bias within their own organizations.
Diversity and impact
Perhaps as a result of recognizing the challenges women in the workplace face, female-led companies tend to offer benefits and support to positively impact gender parity. The YPO survey shows that women leaders who have taken parental leave themselves are more likely to provide maternity/paternity leave, flexible work arrangements, female leadership/mentoring programs, and gender wage gap analysis.
My career, initially as a corporate and then as an impact entrepreneur focusing on gender and diversity, has convinced me that any purpose-driven organization needs diversity in general and gender diversity in particular. The Bamboo Capital team also has unintentionally evolved to be comprised of more than 50% women. Their involvement is at all levels forming a vital part of our decision-making process and value creation.
At YPO, we also share the belief in the power of diversity to create a positive impact. Many of our YPO chapters are taking the lead to change who they recruit, how they recruit and welcome new members. We have been focused on diversity for over three years now and we are seeing results as we roll out our next three-year plan.
There is growing evidence that companies perform better when women are in leadership positions. We also have seen the positive effect on the rest of the workforce when women are in the C-suite, helping champion a more inclusive corporate culture.
And the survey confirms that many YPO members, a sample of the global business leadership community, are responding to the challenge. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said their organization is somewhat or significantly more gender diverse than five years ago.
But the findings also reveal that business leaders can do more. The pandemic recovery is an opportunity to accelerate investments in building a more flexible and understanding workplace that considers a woman’s unique life stages while nurturing a culture of gender inclusiveness. However, this effort requires a genuine long-term commitment, recognizing women for their abilities and skills rather than treating them as showcases for diversity and inclusion.