Thirty years ago, women would generally leave school at an earlier age than men and with fewer qualifications. The roles women assumed in society were very different and were often paid a much lower wage than what was received by their male counterparts. However, economic development, changing social beliefs and increased education has led to more women obtaining jobs in occupations once reserved for men. Employment opportunities are opening up as more and more females further their education through tertiary institutions. In fact, statistics from leading New Zealand universities put female attendance at almost half their student populations, allowing many to move on to obtain graduate level employment positions.
Despite these recent advances, there continues to be a pay gap between men and women (in 2014 the New Zealand gender pay gap was 9.9%) and many female employees continue to sit at a relatively low rung on the career ladder. At the top, in more senior, executive and board type positions, women continue to be in the minority. This means that their views and opinions are vastly under represented in the decision making processes, which can be problematic given that studies support gender diversity at the top being critical to sustaining performance.
The performance enhancing effects of women working in executive positions goes beyond simply boosting a company’s image and reputation. Reports out of Harvard University have shown that entities with women directors deal more effectively with risk and long term priorities, as women tend to be more strategic thinkers with a natural ability to scenario plan and find creative solutions. Having women in top positions can also improve the performance of other female employees who look up to the more senior women as role models.
Another benefit of having females at the top is that they are generally more familiar with consumer needs. Where women tend to drive the majority of consumer purchase decisions, having women involved at the top can enable more successful products and services to be developed. So with that being said, you would think the ratio of females to males would be higher at the top.
A number of factors contribute to women’s lack of presence in more senior positions. An obvious one is the implications of childbirth, where taking time away from work often means women do not experience constant levels of progression throughout their career. Other factors that can prevent women from reaching those top positions include a lack of support provided by other women, unconscious bias from males in more senior positions and potentially a lack of self-confidence.
It is important for both males and females to recognise and embrace the differences between each gender. It is not a matter of women trying to act like men. It is about people playing to their own strengths and earning the respect of their peers and subordinates by being themselves.
With studies suggesting that women are making a positive difference to the bottom line, it will be interesting to see whether firms that have a more balanced gender composition enjoy an unbalanced share of the profit.