I recently read that Iceland is still leading the way with their gender equality ambitions and remain in pole position for the eighth consecutive year on the Global Gender Gap Index 2016 that covers 144 countries and is compiled by the World Economic Forum. Rwanda is No. 5 on the list followed by the Philippines at No. 7 and Burundi at No. 12. Germany is No. 13.
The U.K. sits at No. 20 on the Index.
However, when you look at the rankings in more detail the results are more nuanced. For example, you will find that Rwanda is at No. 8 for Economic Participation and Opportunity whereas the U.K. is at 53; and for Political Empowerment Burundi is at No. 8 with the U.K. at 24. In Educational Attainment and Health and Survival the rankings reverse with Burundi’s plummeting dramatically to Nos. 110 and 89 respectively, whereas the U.K. sits at 34 and 64. Finland is No. 1 in both of those categories.
Icelandic women reportedly say that their success in closing the gender gap is due to their Viking ancestry that makes them strong and independent. Isn’t that a great way of looking at it and certainly there could be something in their claim. However, Vikings aside, there are a number of important factors why they are staying solidly at No. 1. Firstly, is its rate of female working age employment which is as high as 88%. Second, is that over a 50 year period they have had a woman as head of state for 20 of those years;
Today 41% of Icelandic MPs are female.
Next, 65% of university students in Iceland are female. But crucially for the purpose of this article is their policy that 40% of company board members must be women – a status enshrined in Icelandic law.
One could say that this is all very well for Iceland whose population is tiny when compared to that of the UK but their efforts to rebalance the gender gap and pay disparity is to be admired and dare I say it, emulated. Women in Iceland have access to high quality, affordable nurseries and there are also strong incentives for men to take parental leave. Undoubtedly their quotas of women on company boards have had a huge impact on the professional lives of Icelandic women. And while the majority of women in Iceland have jobs, they still manage to have an average of two children each because of state legislation.
Nevertheless, Icelandic women are prepared to fight for their rights.
Not unlike the Dagenham’s women’s strike for equal pay at the Ford factory in 1968, the subject of which was made into the successful film Made in Dagenham (2010), and the two-year strike at Grundig (1978-1980) for equal pay for the Asian women employees of the company, the women of Iceland held an all-out strike in 1975 (later known as the first “Women’s Day Off”). And when I say all-out it really was, as they not only walked out of their workplaces but their homes too! With 90% of Iceland's female population taking action it made a big and lasting impression and began a process of economic and political progress for women.
I am pleased to say that we are making progress on the issue of gender diversity here in the UK but it’s still a tough nut to crack, especially that of women on boards. Is one of the problems down to the fact that very few of us bother to find out who is sitting on the boards of our top companies? I would bet that in more cases than not this also applies to the very companies that we work for. Why should we even care? Well, here’s why.
Boards of directors are making decisions that may have a direct impact on our communities and national life, and therefore all of us.
They also make decisions about the salaries, benefits and pensions of their executives and employees, to invest or divest, to buy, sell or merge with other companies. They determine the forward direction of the business that may entail closing down offices, cease trading in certain markets, and the big one, redundancies.
Board directors also determine the degree of corporate social responsibility they want to develop and support; the stuff that on the face of it is not about profit but in fact feeds and relies on it. If you work for a small company or are running your own business you may not think that any of this applies to you. But you would be wrong. Large companies shape our national destinies more than you realise. One only has to think of the ongoing case of BHS and its pension fund to understand why the constitution and governance of a board is so important. The actions and values of our leading businesses set the tone for the medium and small business sector of British industry especially as we face the fast moving and challenging world of the twenty-first century.
To make good decisions it’s important that boards hear and consider differing viewpoints and this only really comes from having directors and employees who speak from their own experiences, perspectives and backgrounds. To have women on boards demonstrates that on the issue of gender equality companies are leading by example; hopefully this would extend to ethnicity.
Advancing women to positions of leadership is smart business.
Wrapping up my thoughts on why every single one of us should be invested in advancing the case for women on boards here is a summary of the key reasons.
DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT
Women on boards bring different perspectives to the difficult issues facing today’s corporations. It is widely believed that diversity of thought results in better decision making.
The makeup of corporate boards of directors should be representative of the company in which it governs that is all stakeholders from shareholders to employees and customers to regional and national economies.
A diverse board is better positioned to thrive in today’s global economy where the pace of change is accelerating and rapidly changing economic realities require nimble, strategic and well informed directors.
AVAILABILITY OF ESSENTIAL SKILLS
Senior women executives offer the skills and experience that most boards need including industry knowledge, operational experience, and functional expertise. There is a huge, untapped pool of talent.
CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Research shows that a 10% in women on company boards brings a 17% increase in the overall CSR performance. They also bring a higher return on sales, better risk management and attract more women into leadership roles. I ask you, what could be wrong with that?
Although the World Economic Forum had this to say about the still intractable issue of gender equality in their report this year, “More than a decade of data has revealed that progress is still too slow for realising the full potential of one half of humanity within our lifetimes”, I say stuff that, let’s make the future female.
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