Beyond #MeToo: How to Smash Glass Ceilings and Empower Women Leaders

When women reach their full potential, whole countries do too.
When women reach their full potential, whole countries do too.

By Helen Clark

Barriers to women leadership must be tackled head-on, and there are proven ways of breaking through.

The global economic gains from reducing gender inequality are considerable: $5.3 trillion by 2025 even if there were only a 25% reduction in the gap.

In the corporate world, companies with more women on boards get better financial results. That’s hardly a surprise, given that those boards stand to be more attuned to the attitudes and behaviors of whole populations, rather than of half of them.

Put simply, if the full contribution of women to economies and societies is not realized, it’s not only women who won’t reach their full potential – whole countries won’t.

Around the world, development agencies and banks and the International Monetary Fund are stressing the importance of gender equality. Governments of all kinds agree. So, is the global gender gap finally narrowing as we near the end of the second decade of the 21st century?

Apparently not. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report shows a widening gap on educational attainment, health and longevity, and economic and political empowerment.

On current trends, the report estimates it will take 100 years to close the overall gender gap, 217 years to achieve parity in the workplace (across wages, seniority, and participation), and 99 years to achieve equal numbers of women and men elected to parliaments.

[tweet="Make paid work a real option for women with children – @UNDP chief @HelenClarkNZ" text="Make paid work a real option for women with children"]

But if more women are to rise to the ranks of leadership across all areas of economies, societies, and politics, there is a wide range of structural factors to be addressed. This is as relevant to women rising to political leadership as it is to women rising to be top leaders in major public, private, and non-governmental organizations.

As for how to tackle those structural challenges, first and foremost, there is a need to make paid work a real option for women with children. It’s not a real option if affordable, accessible, and quality childcare is unavailable, and if there is not an entitlement to sufficient paid parental leave in the time leading up to and after the birth of a child.

So, for women to be able to be in and stay in the paid workforce, our social services need to be operating well to lift the unpaid care work burden that is such an obstacle to participation for so many women.

There are many proactive steps which can be taken to grow the numbers of women in leadership, but for them to be effective, women must be more fairly represented at all levels. Getting into leadership positions normally involves progression up the ranks.

Yet women may find it difficult to get on the first rung of the ladder, and when they do, they may find that some rungs are missing for them.

The World Bank’s 2016 Women, Business and the Law Report counted 155 countries with at least one law that discriminates against women, 100 that put restrictions on what type of work women can do, and 18 that require the husband’s permission for women to get a job. Up to 1.4 billion women lack legal protection against domestic economic violence, and over one billion against domestic sexual violence.

[tweet="@UNDP chief @HelenClarkNZ: #MeToo is clear signal for employers to protect female staff" text="#MeToo is clear signal for employers to protect female staff"]

Taken together, these factors add up to significant barriers to women getting ahead.

Women need full economic independence, they need access to sexual and reproductive health services, they need to be able to determine if, who, and when they marry, they need safety in their homes and communities, and they need the laws which are supposed to protect their rights upheld. Only then can we expect to see major progress on women’s leadership globally.

For the most part, in developed countries the barriers set out above have been overcome.  Yet others remain. There are persistent gender pay gaps between men and women perpetuated by female-dominated occupations being remunerated less, the different life cycles of women and men, and outright pay discrimination.

Moving forward, paid work needs to be a real option for women with children. This requires making affordable, accessible, and quality childcare universally available, and sufficient paid parental leave in the time leading up to and after the birth of a child.

To recruit more women in areas where they are under-represented and support their promotion into higher levels of responsibility, some good measures include gender-neutral job advertisements, targeted recruitment, gender-sensitive interviewing, having women on all shortlisting and selection panels, ensuring no all-male shortlists, and opting for the female candidate when there is equal merit until the gender gap has been fully closed.

On retention, workplace culture and practice must show zero-tolerance for harassment and bullying. The #MeToo movement should be a clear signal to all employers to do more to keep staff safe from predators.

[tweet="There are proven ways of breaking through #glasscielings – @UNDP chief @HelenClarkNZ" text="There are proven ways of breaking through glass cielings"]

Finally, to ensure promotion of women up the ranks, organizations must encourage mentoring and talent development for women and enable peer group support through women’s networks.

The objective of the above measures is to see women more equally represented across all levels of organizations, and equally paid.

Despite much progress, many glass ceilings remain and women in leadership positions globally are a rare commodity.

Those glass ceilings have to be tackled head-on, and there are proven ways of breaking through. Addressing basic structural issues is a precondition – women can’t even get near the glass ceilings if they are denied equality and protection under the law and can’t determine their own destiny.

Fortunately, we live in a changing world. For Jacinda Ardern to become Prime Minister of New Zealand at 37 is in itself a significant achievement.  She will have a baby in June and take six weeks parental leave. The Deputy Prime Minister will be acting in her place during that time.

In other words, normal arrangements have been put in place. This is being observed with much interest by young women because they have been wondering: can we do it all? Can we have family, and can we have a career? And the message the New Zealand Prime Minister is sending is: Yes, you can!