As women business leaders, we view the renewed attention on women's equality in the workplace with cautious optimism. As women, we are optimistic because a fresh vigour is now infiltrating the centuries-old struggle for equal representation and voice at the table of power. But as business leaders, we are cautious because the current conversation is missing a critical point: how women's equality in the workplace benefits business, as well as communities and the environment, which can mitigate reputational and operational risks and improve a company's bottom line. Without this business-focused rationale, we risk a backlash in the workplace: one where men are afraid to work with women, and women are more afraid than ever to speak up and speak out about unfair treatment.
This doesn't have to happen. Women and men can come together with a shared understanding of how gender-balanced leadership benefits business and a shared vision of the future. Women's leadership, in other words, simply makes good business sense.
There are a number of studies that underscore this point. One study found women's equality in the workplace could add as much as US$28 trillion to global annual gross domestic product by 2025. Other research shows, when more women lead, financial growth increases, corporate reputations are more resilient and employees are happier. According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, companies with women directors outperformed those without women directors in average growth and return on equity. Individual studies from Sodexo, IBM and other major companies echo these results.
In the past 12 months, we've seen incredible successes across the world where women's equality has made strong progress. In Saudi Arabia, women finally gained the right to drive. Iceland became the first country to introduce legislation requiring companies to prove equal pay for men and women. There are now greater protections for women and girls against violence in parts of the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean. Achieving gender equality, however, is not simply a matter of individual gain; it's about the broad benefits to society when women have an equal voice and decision-making authority.
A study of more than 1,500 global corporations found that companies with more women on their boards offer more goods and services to communities with limited or no access to financial products. These companies also tend to give higher priority to environmental issues and are likely to invest in renewable power, low-carbon products, and energy efficiency.
According to Calvert Impact Capital, female financial advisors were 42 percent more likely than their male counterparts to recommend investments with positive social and environmental impact.
The lack of women's leadership is a global business issue. Women occupy just 15 percent of board seats worldwide. In the US, women account for an abysmal 5 percent of all CEOs among S&P 500 companies.
The numbers are worse in the UK. In 2016, there were more men named David than all of the women CEOs in the FTSE 1000.
In the 1,557 largest listed companies in 20 Asia-Pacific countries, measured by market value, women account for just 12.4 percent of board seats.
In Africa, women hold 14.4 per cent of board seats at the 300 largest listed companies.
In 2016, one study of 1,259 listed companies in Latin American and Caribbean countries showed that, on average 8.5 percent of board members were women.
Meaningful change can happen. First, we need to speak in a language that consistently highlights the positive impacts for individual companies when there is gender-balanced leadership.
A 2009 Catalyst study, apathy, fear — loss of status, disapproval from male peers, and of making a mistake — and ignorance were the biggest barriers that prevent men from supporting gender equality in the workplace. Last year a survey of more than 70,000 employees revealed nearly 50 percent of men think women are already well represented in leadership in companies where just one in 10 senior leaders is a woman.
Second, we need to break out of the echo chamber. Business needs to have more open dialogue with men (and women) who are on the side of the status quo, and companies need to prioritise these conversations at every level. Systems within companies must be put in place to ensure leadership is held accountable and gender parity remains a priority.
The good news is there are promising signs that the winds are starting to shift.
Last month, BlackRock, the world's biggest asset manager, sent a letter to 367 Russell 1000 companies that have fewer than two female directors asking them to justify how the lack of gender diversity on their boards aligns with their long-term strategies. The letter then asked the companies to report back about how they plan to improve their board's gender balance.
At the same, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced that the United Nations had achieved full gender parity across senior management.
Challenging stubborn gender biases—among both men and women—may make people uncomfortable, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. We can't sit back and wait for the world we want—one that is fairer, inclusive and sustainable for everyone.
In a world where there are growing divisions across politics and society, we need both men and women to join together with a shared vision for the future—one where business grows, society flourishes and the environment is protected.
About the authors: Dr Amy Jadesimi is CEO, Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics Base; Gail Klintworth is Business Transformation Director, Business & Sustainable Development Commission; Partner, Systemiq.