- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
Over the past 18 months, numerous studies have shown how women, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Serial lockdowns impacted women’s paid employment, many had to leave their jobs to provide childcare, and those who were working from home absorbed the domestic workload while juggling childcare and work. Even more severely affected were single parents, the overwhelming majority of which are female.
These effects will be felt for years to come, and corporations have an important part to play in empowering and supporting women in the post-pandemic world. From the onset of the pandemic, corporations in Europe have stepped up in the face of our global health emergency. LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) started producing antibacterial hand gel for French hospitals, while Pirelli provided much needed ventilators in Italy.
What is interesting, although perhaps not surprising, is that many of the companies that have stepped up to support their communities are led by women. It is well documented that having a diverse C-level suite of executives results in companies operating in a way that is stronger and more effective. The latest report by McKinsey shows that gender and cultural diversity in corporate leadership strengthens the business case. We are now seeing evidence that companies run by women are better for society too.
Female CEOs leading by example … is one of the most important aspects of socially responsible corporate work
For instance, as part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) investments, the female-led Kate Spade, has contracted Abahizi Rwanda, a cooperative that employs 150 women in Masoro, Rwanda to produce bags for the brand. These bags, part of the ‘On Purpose’ collection, display a small inside label featuring the name of the woman who handmade it. Not only is the company financially rewarding Masoro’s women for their work, but they are recognising their craftsmanship too.
Another example is Vodafone Ukraine, a subsidiary of NEQSOL Holding, run by Olga Ustinova, who was named as one of the 100 most powerful women of Ukraine in 2021. Under her leadership, the company recently launched the Big Data Lab project, which aims to offer young people the necessary skills to pursue a career in data science. The project is especially beneficial for the participating young women, who have traditionally been excluded from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects and roles. Female CEOs leading by example and empowering the next generation of women in their communities is one of the most important aspects of socially responsible corporate work.
One of the strongest cases for gender equality today is seen in the framework of the European Union, dating back to the “the principle of equal pay for work of equal value” in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The EU boasts some of the highest numbers of female leaders in the world and has supported key legislation on non-discrimination, anti-harassment and maternity leave. In 2019, the EU made a breakthrough by electing the first female European Commission president. On the legislative side, a proposal was submitted in early 2021 that would require companies to disclose gender pay gaps and provide women with better tools to seek equal compensation. Coupled with independent regulation, laws like these represent an effort to address the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women in work.
Significant disparities, however, persist between member states. According to the Fondation Robert Schuman, the average number of women in member state government positions remains at 31.85%. This statistic falls even lower in states like Hungary or Malta. Many women work low-paid sectors and often earn less than their male colleagues for the same work. Hoping to tackle these issues, the European Commission presented its ‘Gender Equality 2020-2025’ strategy. Reflecting a notable step up from the EU’s previous commitments, the strategy offers more concrete action on gender-based policies and administration. Still, many critiques call for stronger measures and it is clear that there is still work to be done. The reality is that the accumulated impact of gender inequalities in employment results in a 40% gender gap in overall net yearly earnings and consequently a 37% gender gap in pensions to the disadvantage of women, according to the European Institute for Gender Equity.
Companies must now assume their role in lifting the women negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis
On a positive note, the EU Work-life Balance Directive addresses women’s underrepresentation in the labour market and establishes minimum standards for parental leave. Member states now need to implement the directive by August 2022, demonstrating that legislation works, but there should certainly be stronger impetus for change other than measures imposed by the government.
This calls for clear commitments from board and C-suite leadership. While the business case is justified, it is also vital to think of ‘building back better’ narrative as work environments adapt to new post-COVID realities. It is no mere coincidence that companies with female CEOs have a stronger track record of investing in CSR programmes that support women. Female leaders have long been credited with heightened morality, emotional awareness, and social skills, which, for many, makes for better leaders. An increasingly number of scientific studies validate these claims. A 2017 Gallup poll found that only 23% of Americans prefer a male boss, down from 66% in 1953. In the age of ‘dollar voting’, whereby consumers prioritise brands that align with their values, companies with diverse C-suite leadership are aware of the power of purposeful investments and demonstrate this understanding in their CSR policies by investing in projects that benefit both the business’ profits and community. Women and society at large reap the benefits of greater inclusivity.
In order to generate tangible change, companies must first embrace equity and equality by introducing and managing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) targets across the entire organisation, including boards and C-suites. Secondly, companies should support and foster their talent pipeline through C-suite ‘schools’, such as European Women on Boards, to accelerate women into board and C-suite positions by strengthening their leadership skills and cross-border networks. Finally, companies must look to diversify their talent pools. This means updating DEI programmes and recruitment practices, by tapping into local communities and exploring new talent pipelines.
When women break the glass ceiling, head large corporations or spearhead institutional reform, they lift other women up with them. Women leaders outperform, especially in times of crisis, and so do companies with female CEOs, simultaneously contributing to a more inclusive and productive society by investing in their local communities. This pandemic has shown the value of gender-diverse leadership, and companies must now assume their role in lifting the women negatively affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Moreover, it is also pertinent to consider the importance of stability while addressing equity and equality in the workplace. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war is a stark reminder that challenges beyond a global pandemic will create roadblocks towards achieving greater gender equality, both in the corporate setting and beyond.
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