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04 April 2018

Decades into the fight for gender equality, what's holding back greater change?

Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia

Despite huge progress, we are still a long way from a gender-equal world

Wall of women professors at King's College London.
Wall of women professors at King's College London.

Women’s lives have changed profoundly in mature democracies in the decades since the start of the second feminist wave. Educational attainment, workforce participation, the ability to control fertility, anti-discrimination legislation, and policies promoting work and family life balance are all evidence of how deep the change has been. Indeed, today women outnumber men on university campuses in most countries across the world.

However, these gains have not translated into equality at leadership levels. Globally, women make up only around a quarter of national parliamentarians, news media leaders, and judges, only 15% of corporate board members, and just 9% of senior IT leaders.

It is clear, too, that change, where it does occur, is at a glacial pace. The last decade has seen just a 2% increase in the number of female government ministers and a 1% increase in the number of female senior managers. A lack of consistent comparative global data beyond these sectors makes progress harder to track, but one recent analysis of LinkedIn data found that over 10 years the proportion of female leaders increased by an average of just 2% across 12 industries including the media, manufacturing, finance, legal and IT sectors. 

Where progress is made it can also be reversed. The global gender economic gap is widening as the rise in male pay outpaces female earnings and women’s share of leadership positions stalls.

To these concerning figures we must add evidence of backlash to the gains made so far. One global study found that almost half of female parliamentarians had received threats of death, rape or violence, and almost a quarter had been subject to sexual violence. While the abuse of women who have a public platform is a long and ignoble tradition, new forms of media are making this easier. Certainly, the US presidential election provides a deeply troubling example of persistent sexist abuse of the female candidate through social media, while the male candidate appeared to pay no real political price for statements about sexually harassing women.

So why, despite waging the battle for gender equality for decades does parity of power, in particular, feel out of reach? I write this at what feels like a pivotal moment. Although originating in Hollywood the familiarity of the experiences described by the #MeToo movement meant they reverberated to journalism, politics and beyond to less newsworthy offices. The stories collected are visceral illustrations of the career consequences suffered by women who are forced to manoeuvre around problematic men. They shine a spotlight on just one of the barriers in what has been described as a ‘glass labyrinth’ of ongoing and unpredictable challenges faced by women in the workplace. I think this metaphor is important in capturing the fact that the barriers to female leadership begin from the very start of women’s careers. It’s not just one high, hard glass ceiling at the top.

The new energy of #MeToo is coming at a time of increased research into unconscious bias, which is adding scientific weight to a leadership perception barrier with which we have long grappled. Specifically, studies are finding both men and women are predisposed to see women leaders as less likeable and hold them to higher standards. As any girl who has ever been called ‘bossy’ will tell you, women do not need to be CEOs for this hostility to have an effect. But women at the top do feel this it too. I know from my own experience of speaking to female leaders across countries with very different cultures and levels of development, that there runs a common thread of hostility to female power. And in all nations, women from communities at risk of marginalisation because of ethnicity, race, religion or poverty face even higher hurdles.

Although we are getting better at describing the problem, there are still roadblocks standing in the way of progress towards a solution. Many of the initiatives companies use to promote women’s leadership are not linked to evidence, and with some good reason – academic work is rarely available in a form accessible to those in decision making positions. This makes it harder for those who want to make change and provides cover for those who don’t. While the fight for gender equality is being waged across the world and by many players, the fragmentation of efforts stops us joining forces and accelerating change.

These are the gaps that the new Global Institute for Women’s Leadership is seeking to fill: helping to build a network of researchers and practitioners via online and real-world activity, widely disseminating robust evidence about what is effective in promoting gender equality and working to generate evidence where it is missing.

I look forward to working together with colleagues here at King’s and beyond on this important project and urge those of you united in the same battle to get in touch to see how you can partner with us to realise a shared vision of a world where gender is no barrier to leadership.