As individuals, families and organisations around the world come together to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, many will focus on the ‘human’ element: celebrating women’s achievements, fundraising for female-focused charities, and raising awareness about women’s equality.
Doing so is vital – but it isn’t the entire story. Far fewer will focus on the business case for gender equality: the very fact that pushing for gender equality makes extremely strong business sense. Around the world, this fact may ultimately be the one that helps business take action to address gender equality.
Resilient and commercially viable organisations, as we all know, play a vital role in economic growth around the world and boost national economies. Within these organisations women, of course, represent half of the total of employment potential – meaning that developing the talents of women, in turn, increases a particular organisation’s competitive advantage.
The statistics speak for themselves: a recent McKinsey study of 1,000 companies across 12 countries found that firms that had taken steps to improve gender equality were more profitable than national averages. A separate study of Fortune 500 companies conducted by Catalyst found that organisations with high levels of gender equality in management positions had 35% better return on equity than firms which hadn’t taken similar steps.
Additionally, an EY study of the top 200 utilities in the world found that companies with high levels of gender equality on their boards had higher returns on investments. In fact, the top 20 most diverse utilities significantly outperformed the bottom 20 – a difference that could be in the millions of dollars or more.
On a broader, macro level, gender parity in labour markets would mean an additional US$12 to US$28trillion added to global GDP. To put this in perspective, that’s approximately the value of the American and Chinese economies of today – combined.
Across the region – and indeed, the world – there remains work to be done. The rapid pace of technological changes means that women must continue to be heavily represented in higher education, to allow them to play an equal role in the future economy.
While governments across the region have collectively made a commitment to gender equality in varying degrees and with multiple local programmes in place, in the private sector, there remains a concerning lack of true understanding regarding what equality means – there are various factors which must be considered in terms of equal pay, such as bonuses and shares. Examining a wide variety of factors will ensure true gender parity.
We’ve already noted the huge benefit that having women in leadership and C-suite positions would have on a business. Here again, businesses in the region must re-double efforts. Part of this will mean nurturing young female talents from an early age, encouraging them to take additional responsibilities and empowering them with the skills they need to succeed.
The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has exacerbated the need to focus on these issues. The WEF’s 2020 Gender Gap report, for example, found that while women made up 39% of the global workforce, they represented 54% percent of all job losses. The pandemic has also intensified challenges that women already faced; working mothers, for example, have always done a ‘double shift’—a full day of work followed by hours spent doing household work and caring for children.
As a result of these dynamics, a study from McKinsey conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org in the US found that more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just a few months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. In this environment, it is high time to double – or even triple – efforts to ensure that these issues are addressed.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Across all sectors, that’s what businesses in this country and the wider MENA region need to do: challenge and call out gender bias and choose to make a change.
>>>The writer is Head of Talent Acquisition, Ericsson Middle East and Africa