Friday, 23 August 2013

Women In A Man's World


It is a firmly held view by organisations such as the UN and World Bank that women empowerment and gender equality is key to sustainable development. Allowing more women access to equal opportunities allows them to emerge as social and economic actors in their own rights. This is thought to be important in “influencing more inclusive policies” thereby increasing “investment in education, health and overall wellbeing”. So why do women have so little say in the highest echelons of influence and decision making?

Women’s limited influence in politics can clearly be seen in that of the 195 countries in the world, only 17 have female leaders. Other statistics draw a similar conclusion; in Europe only 20% of women hold seats in national parliaments, through this is higher than the 14% of women in the Middle East. In many countries quotas have to be put in place to ensure that women make-up an acceptable section of the electoral candidates. The small voice of women on the political landscape allows inequality to continue in other areas of society, particularly employment. Although women and men appear in the broad work force in equal numbers, few women make it to the executive suite, widely viewed as a ‘man’s world’. In recent years more and more women are breaking from the mould and challenging the rife inequality in big businesses across the globe.

Just this month, Suh Young Kyung (above left) became the first female deputy governor at the Bank of Korea in the company's 63-years. Suh's rise to the third-highest job in the company is noteworthy, not only because of her relatively young age, 50, but also because it comes just 7 months after she became the first woman in her current position of post-division chief at the Monetary Policy and Markets Department. Although it wasn't always easy for her; in 1988 when she first joined the company she found that it was "entirely dominated by men". She also shared that she was expected to wear a schoolgirl-style outfit - which she refused to do. “They tried to force me to wear the same uniform as high-school graduate while giving money to my male colleagues to buy a suit every season”. Suh hopes that although her new position as a role model is a “great burden”, she will be able to create more opportunities for women.

Suh’s rapid success is inspiring, but female executives such as Irene Dorner (above centre) and Sheryl Sandberg (above right) say that such incidences are few because women are preventing their own success. Irene, chief executive of HSBC USA is one of the few women to have breached the upper levels of finance but she blames herself and female colleagues for the lack of women in corporate industries. She admits that she didn’t push hard enough to change the male-dominated “status quo”, rather she kept her head down, focusing on her own career. Another view from Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, argues that women may be holding themselves back in the workplace “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands and by pulling back when we should be leaning in”.

Many companies should receive some credit for attempts at reducing the gender gap, although efforts have achieved various degrees of success. Big corporations have created networking and mentorship programs to develop talent, while non-profit groups have focused on education for high school girls. In Norway, it is a requirement that 40% of board members of public companies are to be women, something other European countries are now considering. The Bank of Korea, where Suh is one of the 3 women in the banks 230 high-level positions, has been pushing for a change under Governor Kim Choong Soo who wants to promote diversity within the company. In 2005, women accounted for just 14% of the BOK’s total workforce, this has steadily increased to about 20%. Although changes in these institutions are small and slow, it hopefully foreshadows larger and more frequent change to come.

(photos, quotes and statistics: nytimes.com, bloomberg.com, worldbank.org)

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