In a recent speech at the University of East London, lawyer Ann Olivarius considered reasons why there are fewer women holding executive and boardroom positions than their male counterparts. Her talk detailed the complexities of this gender issue and also looked at ways women, men and employers can change the working culture so the number of females and males securing top roles in organisations is more balanced. Discrimination laws and gender quotas are two methods that have been tried so that people, whatever their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and equally.
Ann Olivarius highlighted five reasons why there are fewer women than men in boardrooms. This is despite figures showing that Fortune 500 companies with high numbers of female directors showed a 26 per cent higher return on invested capital, indicating that mixed-gender boards get better economic results, according to Catalyst research. The speech touched on how discrimination can result simply from deep-set cultural nuances such as employers overlooking the skills of women, believing them less capable and worthy of high profile roles. Obstacles to women’s success can be more personal, with some women being socialised to believe they are not worthy of holding director-level positions, while others may face a disproportionate responsibility for home and family. Furthermore, social networks at work can revolve around men to exclude women from gaining attention and high-ranking allies.
Women have historically been discriminated against, although changes have occurred in recent times to reduce inequality in boardrooms, public services and beyond. Ann Olivarius notes how she was one of the first few women who studied at Yale, where she graduated summa cum laude after it changed its policy to admit females to the university in 1969. She lead an investigation into sexual harassment at the establishment that resulted in a lawsuit which helped changed how universities across the US deal with issues of inequality and discrimination. The lawyer described in her speech how changes like these and many others involving regulatory reform have helped reduce gender inequalities in workplaces, but much more must still be done to improve policies and culture to see more women rising to the very top of their professions.
In order to address the many complex reasons that can stop women from becoming board directors, the lawyer described how introducing quota systems to provide more gender balance at senior levels could prove effective, with positive results coming from such a scheme introduced in Norway. Mentoring programmes to provide more female role models and policies that give women more child care options, could all have an impact on the professional development of women.