5 top women leaders on what's needed to bridge the gender gap

5 top women leaders on what’s needed to bridge the gender gap

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From bias training to leaders who get out of their comfort zones, these leaders share what's needed to bridge the gender gap.

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Each year the World Economic Forum releases the Global Gender Gap Report, research that highlights the world's most gender equal countries across dimensions like opportunity and health across 146 countries and reveals exactly how many years it will take for the world to finally reach gender parity.

According to this year's research, that parity will take 132 years, a 32% rise over 2020. To be sure, that's a slight improvement over 2021's numbers and recent years have seen some marginal progress. In fact, the top 10 economies have all closed more than 80% of their gender gap. Still, so many countries have been slow to bridge gaps in everything from political representation to education or pay.

For a better understanding on why these numbers are so slow to change and what can be done next, Meet the Leader talked to a range of women leaders in fields where women still hold small shares of the workforce.

We talked to them for their perspectives and expertise at two recent events: the Annual Meeting this may in Davos, Switzerland; and the Global Technology Governance Retreat in San Francisco this June. These women shared their thoughts and the steps that anyone can take to better help everyone from direct reports to colleagues and friends, bridge gaps and build opportunity.

Read the transcript below.

Nela Richardson is the Chief Economist at ADP and the co-head of the ADP Research Institute, a thought leader on labour market and employee performance research. Here's her take on what's needed from an economic standpoint, given ADP data trends.

We're stalling. It's interesting, looking at the US data, women were 46% of the workforce before the pandemic but using ADP data we show that they took 53% of the losses. And the reason why is because women were over-indexed in those very sectors in industries that took the hardest hit during the pandemic: retail, healthcare education, and the list goes on.

Nela Richardson, Chief economist, ADP says progress on the gender gap is 'stalling.' Image: ADP

And so we actually found a narrowing of the gap between men and women. It's about 20% before the pandemic. It narrowed to 83% after, but it was a false conclusion. Sometimes data is concealing rather than revealing. And so, you have to turn that screw another time to make sure your result is robust.

Here we found that the reason why that gap narrowed is because so many low-income women lost their jobs. Fast forward that to around the world, that's not just a US-specific problem. We see wage gaps everywhere. We've seen women bear the burden of the pandemic in multiple countries and their careers have maybe had a negative impact because of that.

So, really it's about supporting workers and individuals, but key is supporting women to make those gains, to make household living standards even better and more equitable overall.

Ebru Ozdemir is the chairperson of Limak Group of Companies. A civil engineer by training, she's been instrumental in driving a number of initiatives that help women engineers, including one she founded — Turkish Women Engineers. She talked World Economic Forum editor Julie Masiga at the Annual Meeting this May about why the programme goes beyond just scholarships and why it's key to offer support in everything from soft skills to foreign languages and resilience.

The way to lessen the gap is we have to create sisterhood. Women should support women in business. We have to create teams. We have to create sisters supporting women. In every country, there are different issues.

Ebru Ozdemir is the chairperson of Limak Group of Companies. She says the way to lessen the gender gap is to create sisterhoods. Image: World Economic Forum / Boris Bal

In Turkey, one of the issues was having a scholarship, because of the economic situation of these girls. So, we said the first thing is going to be the scholarship. And then on the way we realized that all the girls have dreams of having international careers. And we said, “Do you speak English?” and then “no” or “a little” or “some.”

And then we said: “If you want to have a career at an international level, then you have to have a foreign language.” So, we put in online programs in different languages. And then being an engineer requires an internship, so this is a part of the education and most of them didn't have access to internships, so we provided them internships.

We realized that the girls can be what they can see. So, each of them gets a mentor in her own field, a successful woman engineer who has gone through this road and become successful in her career. So, each of them has one mentor during this course.

Close to the graduation, to give them soft skills, we put them into another programme with Women in Technology, an organization in Turkey where they provide soft skills.

And, more importantly, just before they graduate, we give them coaches to make them ready to the business life psychologically because business life is a very difficult, and especially in our sectors where women are a minority, we're less than 20% in all the sectors that we are working, like in energy and in construction, in infrastructure. So being a minority is actually creating extra pressure on you psychologically. And you're like, “Am I gonna survive? Am I gonna not?”

Or even at the sites, construction sites may be remote places. I mean, it's not like in the middle of the cities, most of the time. So, for this reason, the coaches help them to overcome all these issues and give them a psychological confidence. So we are trying to give this feeling to them.

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Vicky Hollub is the CEO of Occidental Petroleum and one of the first women to head a major US oil and gas company. Women are scarce in the energy sector. At May's Annual Meeting in Davos, Hollub shared how better unsconscious bias training could help bridge the gap.

We have to get people who are really good people to understand they do have some unconscious bias. So, I think every CEO of every company in the world should take unconscious bias tests, even women. Every CEO, you need to take it. You just make the C-suite take that training.

Image: World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser

And beyond that you need to have advocates for your diverse employees, not just women, but all your diverse employees. You need to put advocacy programmes in place, because without removing the bias and without having someone to advocate, because I think just about every CEO that you would talk to probably says at some point they had someone advocating for them, I certainly did for me in my role. And so that needs to happen. And then I think that, along with women helping women to see what maybe they could do differently or how they could think about things differently. I think all of those things have to happen in a big way.

I can think of people today who were with some of my peer companies and they ended up retiring, never getting to that role. And I think they would have been amazing had they had that opportunity.

Meet The Leader / Linda Lacina: Since no one thinks that they're holding people back, Meet The Leader also asked Vicki how leaders can ensure they're making opportunity happen. Here's what she said.

Vicki Hollub: I think you have to make sure that you're creating the discussion about it. For example, in our company, we every year go through succession planning. One time we did it and as we were talking about candidates, a couple of us in the room, thought about a person and thought, well, why is she not on this list?

HR went to her manager and had a chat with him, not about that, because she didn't want to have the discussion go right away to that person, but she sort of talked about some of the things, got up to leave and she said, “Oh, what about Rachel, how she's doing?” — just using a name — and he responded to say, “Oh, she's great. She's just doing amazing things.” And it just started rattling off all the things that she was doing well. And so, the HR person says: “Wow, do you think she should be on the succession planning list?” He said: “Oh my god, yes, she should be.” He hadn't thought about it. And I know him and he's a good guy. It wasn't intentional at all. It was just he didn't think about it. So, we have to make those discussions.

Pam Chan is the Chief Investment Officer at BlackRock and global head of the Alternative Solutions Group. She understands the power of ESG, environmental, sustainability, and governance standards, to reshape the world. She stressed that to solve a range of big problems -- and embrace ESG principles --- leaders will need to get uncomfortable and get ready to expand both their networks and their perspectives.

Pam Chan: I don't think there's any shortcut to just spending more time together. I think it's really hard to despise or hate someone that you spend time with. It's really easy to tokenize or otherize someone when they are abstract, but when they're sitting with you sharing a cup of tea or glass of wine or a meal, it's really hard to have those types of feelings. And so I think the first thing is just spending more time and engaging and having conversation.

I think, secondly, it's also about putting yourself in situations where you can have conversations that make you feel just a bit uncomfortable that are not going to be congruent with your own views or predispositions.

Leaders who get out of their comfort zones will expand their networks and perspectives, said Pam Chan, Chief Investment Officer at BlackRock. Image: World Economic Forum/Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary

I think that oftentimes we find ourselves surrounded by people who think the same way that we do or come from similar backgrounds. And I think actually pushing ourselves to get out of that zone and actually have conversations that are going to surprise you, open your mind. I think that's really important to building trust. And then you realize actually that the other person, is probably just as well-meaning as you it's just that we haven't had the conversation.

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky is the CEO and co-founder at Instrumental, a company that provides cutting-edge technology to enable engineers to solve manufacturing problems. She's also an ex-Apple engineer who led the creation of the first-generation Apple Watch, and the founder of Women in STEM, a mentoring program that matches university women with professionals to help those early in their career get help with resumes, technical interviews and building their networks.

Women comprise only a fraction of both manufacturing and mechanical engineering, and Anna knows what it's like to be the only woman in the room. She shared a strategy with Meet The Leader that women and their champions can use to get more visibility for women's ideas in any meeting.

As a young engineer, I was often the only woman in the room. I became very cognizant of power dynamics in that situation; who had power in the room, who was leading the discussion, whose ideas were listened to.

I found that there were some very tactical things that I could do that I felt increased my power in those interactions, and therefore increased my confidence in those interactions. So, things like where you choose to sit at the table is an important element of power dynamics in a meeting when you're the only woman in the room.

There are commanding portions of the table and you want to sit there. You don't want to sit in the benches behind the table at the back of the room. That is not a position of power. Who owns the agenda is a position of power and a way to obtain power in a meeting. So, if you are being asked to set up the meeting, own the agenda. Don’t delegate the agenda to someone else, particularly when you're early in your career, that's a way to create power in that environment. And I think also being willing to speak up and assert your position.

One of the things that I always did, because I was an engineer, I always really cared a lot about my technical reputation. And so, when I was going to assert something in a meeting, I always had the technical backup for that particular assertion. I had the data, I was familiar with it. I could support my statements with facts, and that became a habit for me and how I continued to confidently engage with my co-workers over years. And I became well known for my technical reputation, because I'd spent so much time investing in that early in my career.

In terms of power in the room usually rooms are oriented with a long conference room table, and there's seats all the way around, including at the head of the table. Maybe there's a video conferencing system and there's usually doors on one side of the room and you want to be on the side of the table that's facing the doors and you want to be close within sight of essentially whoever's the biggest person in the room, who usually sits at the head. So, you want to be right up next to them at the top of the table, but on the side facing the doors. You can also sit at the head of the table, if it's a meeting of equals, this is a very powerful position to be in. You can see everyone, and that's why it's a powerful position in the room.

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