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Flagship blog - eng

Beyond the Directive: Empowering Women in Leadership Roles

It’s no news that women have always faced significant obstacles when it comes to equal participation in the economy. Worldwide, disparities persist. They manifest themselves as gaps of many forms, affecting pay, career advancement, representation, decision-making, etc. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are nowadays regular buzzwords to be heard in the business world. However, despite certain progress being made in recent years, obtaining leadership roles is still a struggle for most women. May has become the EU Diversity Month and as such it presents a great opportunity to take a look at the current situation of women who strive to join leadership ranks.

It’s time to rethink DEI

The EU Diversity Month provides an excellent opportunity to discuss and address the challenges that women leaders face in the workplace. This year’s theme is "Assessing diversity and inclusion", prompting organizations to ask themselves whether their diversity policies really work. It’s time to evaluate where we truly stand with the implementation of DEI initiatives.
When else, then, is the time to talk about the fact that, globally, women held only 32% of senior management positions in 2022? And that this number represents only a 1% increase from 2021? Simultaneously though, it is predicted that in 2028 women should own about 75% of discretionary spend. With such a considerable purchasing power of the female demographic, it is only wise to take more women on board and to include them in business decision-making and future planning.

Women on Boards Directive

In November 2022, the EU adopted the Women on Boards Directive – a law on gender balance of corporate C-suites. In short, the goal of the Directive is to increase the number of women on corporate boards of large listed companies in the EU by 30 June 2026. To do so, it sets a minimum requirement of having a 40% representation of the underrepresented sex among the non-executive directors, or 33% of all director positions in a case that a Member State chooses to cover the number of both executive and non-executive directors. To put it in perspective, big European companies have currently on average 30.6% of female board members, however, the differences between individual states are immense. For instance, while in France the average is 45.4% and in Germany 27.2%, in the Czech Republic it is down to 17.2%.
This new rule will, not yet, affect small and medium-sized entities which may be excluded from the scope of the Directive. There are also several other exemptions under discussion. For example, if the underrepresented sex makes altogether less than 10% of a company, then the company could be absolved of such a quota since it is expected there wouldn’t be enough candidates to fill the leadership positions.
In practice, the Directive states that when there will be two applicants of equal qualification in terms of experience, suitability, skills and performance, the spot must be given to the candidate of the underrepresented sex. It is unlikely though that two candidates will be ‘equally qualified’. As research has confirmed over and over again, women leaders are facing career obstacles ingrained in multiple aspects of their lives. Their experience as well as career journeys are majorly different from their men counterparts.

The glass ceiling vs. labyrinth

The “glass ceiling” is a well-known term used to describe an invisible barrier that prevents women from advancing into senior leadership roles. It implies that women can see the top positions within reach but are unable to break through and obtain them. For most women, however, the journey is not so straightforward and there is not only one specific ceiling in the way. Advancing in their careers, women must navigate what Eagly and Carli (2007) aptly named the “glass labyrinth”. This metaphor suggests that the path to leadership is not a straight line, but rather a complex and confusing maze of interlocking obstacles. Frequently discussed are e.g. work-life balance challenges and family demands which interrupt women’s job development and leave little time for socializing and creating professional ties. It is especially networking which is key in building powerful relationships since mentors and gatekeepers provide crucial support and guidance needed to succeed in higher ranks.

The double bind and the second-generation gender bias

Breaking into men-dominated networks is hard. And it is made even harder by expectations and stereotypes the society generally holds about women, commonly referred to as the 'double bind’. In contrast to the general view on what a woman should be like (caring, empathetic, communal), a leader is anticipated to manifest more ‘masculine’ traits (ambitious, decisive, strong). This contrast exposes women to dual standards and prejudiced evaluations. While in the past gender bias encompassed overt discrimination and explicit barriers, the so-called ‘second-generation gender bias’ operates at a more subtle level, making it difficult to identify and address because it is rooted in assumptions, not necessarily with discriminatory intent.

Time to intervene

For the complexity of related obstacles, companies which are serious about increasing the number of women directors have to apply multiple solutions simultaneously. Here are a few actions to begin with:

Calling out prejudiced remarks

Biases hinder women's ability to gain respect and recognition while they portray them as less competent and effective than men. On the other hand, as soon as a woman shows 'masculine' traits, she is quickly labeled bossy, unlikeable, unfeminine,… or worse. To become a leader one must internalize a leadership identity, however, being constantly confronted with stereotypes obstructs such an identity development. Therefore, prejudiced remarks cannot be acceptable. They must be confronted, not perpetuated or excused as 'jokes'. To foster an inclusive environment, it is important to recognize marginalized people are subjected to harm, such as bias or discrimination. Practices like ‘calling out’ or ‘calling in’ should be taught and implemented in daily operations.

Implementing family-friendly practices

Certain organizational structures, practices, and policies may inadvertently reinforce gender biases. Rewarding long working hours is only one such example. To combat that, family-friendly HR practices (e.g. flextimes, on-site child care, elder care provisions) can allow women to stay in their jobs while juggling with other social roles. This also includes encouraging men to make use of family-friendly benefits or paternity leave. Additionally, the organizational culture should be welcoming towards women who come back and not penalize them for temporarily stepping away from the workforce.

Mentoring and sponsoring

Social capital matters and so the access to influential colleagues can be mediated through supportive mentorship and sponsorship programs. It is however important to look at who is assigned to whom. The data suggests that more men get mentored by senior executives. Sponsorship goes even beyond feedback giving, it is about advocating for one’s protégé, and powerful men are inclined to help junior men. Meanwhile, women are more likely to end up with a female patron and then it brings up a question of potency as women’s connections tend to be generally less efficacious.

Measuring what matters

Last but not least, although we could polemize over the famous quote attributed to Peter Drucker “You can’t improve what you don’t measure”, it is crucial for companies to understand the effectiveness of their DEI efforts in order to drive meaningful change. Move past “vanity metrics” and instead focus on outcome-based measures such as the sense of belonging, engagement and experiences of underrepresented groups, their representation across all organizational levels, or leader’s commitment to DEI policies.

What’s next?

After ten years in the making, the Women on Boards Directive is a significant success and a step towards greater equality. Nevertheless, positive discrimination policies alone won’t do the magic. Targets are only part of the solution, not the final destination. Such a complex issue calls for a multifaceted approach which will support women in all stages of their career development. Let’s keep in mind that the glass labyrinth won’t cease to exist, unless all of the above mentioned challenges are sufficiently dealt with.
Take advantage of the EU Diversity Month to evaluate and enhance your organization's diversity and inclusion policies. You can start off with the EU Diversity Self-Assessment Tool to see where your business currently stands.
If you're unsure about the follow-up process, don't hesitate to reach out to us for assistance.
Examples of a few European initiatives addressing gender inequality:

Image by Freepik