Women in Business: A Cross Cultural Perspective

Emma Buckby

9 Mar 2015

The recent celebration of International Women’s Day makes it an appropriate time to look at the position of women in business across cultures.   Over the last century, women’s roles in industry and commerce have increased and diversified hugely and women now have greater equality of pay and employment rights than ever before.

Still Work to Be Done

But there is still a lot of work to be done and certain parts of the world fare much better than others.  Women’s status in society, levels of education, work life balance legislation, attitudes to hierarchy and power and economic stability all contribute to the vary degrees of women’s success in business around the world and across different cultures.

Where is the Glass Ceiling Highest?

One obvious measure is perhaps the number of women holding seats in the boardroom.  The global average per country is about 19% with Japan struggling with only 3% and Norway at the opposite end with 35.5% of boardroom seats at listed companies held by women.  This is in large part due to the fact that Norway was the first European country to legislate for boardroom quotas.  Since 2003 the law has required 40% of boardroom seats to be held by women and there are harsh penalties for companies that do not comply.  Other European countries including France, Spain and the Netherlands followed suit but boardroom quotas have been contentious in the US, the UK and other European countries with the suggestion that forcing the free market would have a negative impact on company performance.  While in fact numerous studies have shown the positive impact on performance of more women in the boardroom.  Most recently Germany has legislated for boardroom quotas and will require 30% of seats to be filled by women from the start of 2016.

Money, Money, Money

The gap between gender pay has narrowed but in 2014 the World Economic Forum reported that not one country has achieved gender equality of pay.  Iceland, Finland and Norway come closest while Yemen, Pakistan and Chad are bottom of the list.  There is a strong correlation between economic success and equality of pay yet the United States ranks 20th and the United Kingdom a poor 26th.  These are cultures where typically greater importance is placed on the traditionally masculine values of achievement, competition and assertiveness and this perhaps plays a part in the gender pay gap in these countries.

Work Life Balance?

Another measure that highlights the relative position of women in business is differences in employment legislation such as parental leave.  In the developed world maternity leave can vary from a year on full salary in countries such as Serbia, Denmark and Croatia to 119 days at 50% of salary in Greece or 12 weeks on no salary in the United States.  The UK introduced flexible working legislation in 2014 allowing employees the right to request flexible working arrangements.  The US is also the only developed country not to require a legal minimum amount of annual leave while EU countries such as Germany and Denmark provide 40 days of combined public holidays and annual leave.  Although the number of women in paid employment has dramatically increased, the main responsibility for childcare remains fairly universally with women and these work/life balance initiatives can support women who are raising children in tandem with building their career.  It is perhaps no surprise that countries where a healthy work life balance is more greatly valued have more successful businesswomen.

The Path Ahead

Women are still significantly under-represented in leadership roles – in most countries worldwide. It is commonly reported that gender-balanced boardrooms show significantly higher profits than male only boards and so governments, international institutions and multinational companies should use a variety of strategies to encourage more women to the top and should look to their neighbours and colleagues across cultures to perhaps learn new ways of enabling more women to become successful.

 

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