Blogs / 05 Dec 2021 8 min

Why we are 135 years from gender equality and what organisations can do about it

There have been more damaging ripples from the Covid-19 pandemic than we can fathom. In the world of business, one of the most devastating long-term impacts has been on gender equality where we have seen recent momentum towards gender balance in leadership regress significantly. It is now estimated that the time it will take to close the gender gap has widened from an already depressing 99 years in 2020 to an alarming 135 years in 2021.

The frustrating truth is that Covid-19 has exacerbated and heightened the barriers that already existed to women’s progression in business. While we may all be desensitised to the issue of gender equality with all the communications around diversity, and now ESG, there is no denying that inclusion and gender balance continue to be major issues for business and society generally.

More than a ‘nice to have’

In addition to the moral and ethical imperative that should be felt by all progressive leaders, the benefits of gender equality for business are huge. Curtin Business School reports that an increase of 10 per cent or more in women’s representation in key executive roles directly leads to a 6.6 per cent increase in market value.

Indeed, all the evidence points to the unarguable fact that action towards accelerating gender equality results in a more unified, motivated and engaged workforce who are better able to fulfil their potential and deliver high performance. Yet, it is currently going to take until the year 2156 to achieve equal representation of men and women in leadership.

Before we can solve any issue, we need to first understand the root causes. And we have done just that by analysing over 70 studies reporting the latest authoritative research for our white Paper on the Three Barriers to Women’s Progression and What Organisations Can Do. The barriers can be broadly grouped into three categories:  Societal, Organisational and Personal.

Societal pressures against women in leadership

These barriers result from the subtle and often unspoken cultural cues and messages that reinforce the ways that men and women ‘ought’ to think, behave and feel. More than ever before since the pandemic, mothers face the very real double burden of paid and unpaid work, which can feel impossible to reconcile, and all women still face the weight of gender stereotypes and societal expectations about how we’re ‘meant’ to be, penalising us when we act in ways deemed to be ‘masculine’, such as taking leadership roles. Then there are women in the ‘sandwich generation’ who care for both aging parents and dependent children – perhaps even simultaneously battling the menopause with the physical and mental demands that accompanies this inevitable life stage.

Organisational factors limiting women’s breakthrough

Though many dismiss this area, citing equal pay legislation and the fact that so many more women are in business, the reality is only around 20% of executive roles, and only around 8% of CEO roles held by women across Europe. There are still huge hurdles encountered in the workplace which are a combination of systemic obstacles, cultures and norms which disadvantage women. Women face everyday sexism, microaggressions and bias and many women also struggle to access the right networks or get sponsorship from powerful leaders that men are 25% more likely to receive. Others look at the ‘always on’ culture so prevalent in multinational organisations and think ‘I just can’t do that and still be a good mum/carer/friend’, and all the other things that society expects of women.

Personal obstacles in women’s development

Then of course, some of the most unseen and insidious barriers are those on the inside. The reality is, sometimes we hold ourselves back. Some women don’t feel able to put themselves forward for opportunities until they are “ready”, risking missing out on the visible, high-profile assignments that are often the building blocks for career progression. Others prefer not to engage with the inevitable politics of the workplace, don’t push to be heard in meetings, or try to replicate ‘male’ models of leadership which just aren’t authentic. Others struggle to negotiate an equitable division of household responsibilities with our spouses, with the resultant double burden of paid and unpaid work limiting the time available for professional progression.

The impact of intersectionality

Some also have to contend with additional layers of bias and barriers. Women of colour. Women in the LGBTQI+ community. Women with a disability. Women with any combination of ‘minority’ characteristics. For these women the barriers are cumulative.

What organisations can do to accelerate gender equity in business and beyond

All these invisible pressures need to be acknowledged by organisations and the leaders within them as a prerequisite to being able to address them.

The barriers to women’s progression in leadership are not insurmountable, and organisations that are serious about gender equality can and are making great strides. The more leading organisations that focus in on the real issues, create a climate for change and undertake programmes that deliver sustainable results, the more we will collectively breakdown the three barriers and accelerate gender equality.

We work with complex multinational businesses, often in STEM industries, and base our guiding principles on the results we are seeing within our clients’ organisations. Here, we turn those guiding principles into questions that we invite senior leaders to ask themselves and to discuss with their C-suites:

  1. Link inclusion and diversity to business strategy

Are our equity, diversity and inclusion efforts inextricably linked to our business strategy? Is there a clear line of sight between our overall purpose and business priorities and what we are trying to achieve with our diversity goals and programme? Think productivity, customer retention, time to market, risk management and other key business performance measures. What might we do differently to better align diversity to our overall strategy?

  1. Set the tone from the top

Are my actions and behaviours signalling the importance I place on gender equality? If we look at the decisions and outputs of the leadership team recently, do they reflect our diversity messages? Are we individually and collectively walking the talk?

  1. Make inclusion part of cultural change programme

Looking around the organisation, are our processes, systems and metrics geared towards gender equality, diversity and inclusion? And are our front line leaders equipped with the skills and motivation to lead inclusively? Are we rewarding breakthrough actions? Are there consequences for those who are not supporting an inclusive and equitable culture?

  1. Take an evidence-based approach

Do we have a good handle on the barriers to women’s progression in this organisation? Are there particular hurdles borne out of our industry, heritage, or culture? What is the data telling us? What are our women actually experiencing? Are we basing our approaches on what has been proven to work?

  1. Engage men

Have we done enough to bring our male colleagues on the gender equality journey? Do they understand and appreciate the barriers? Have we helped them internalise the many positive roles they can play in building a better world for their female colleagues, and in turn their mums, wives, sisters and daughters? Are our diversity efforts inclusive of all, and not alienating anyone?

  1. Build and accelerate the pipeline

Are we attracting a gender balanced intake of graduates, or is our industry struggle to attract women? How might we take a long term view and raise awareness of our industry at secondary and tertiary school level, to encourage more women graduates? Are our recruitment, career development, appraisal and reward practices designed to accelerate gender equality? How many years away are we from gender equality in this organisation?

  1. Enable a level playing field

What positive actions can we take to give under-represented groups an equal opportunity here? Are there acceleration programmes or targeted recruitment campaigns we could undertake?

  1. Narrow the focus

What are the 2 or 3 things we could do really well which would have the biggest impact on gender equity, diversity and inclusion? What interventions will dismantle the biggest barriers for once and for all? How might these priorities need to differ in the various geographies in which we operate?

As the corporate world continues to evolve from adding value for shareholders to playing an even more purposeful role in creating value for a broader range of stakeholders, we really believe that organisations can be a powerful force for equality. When we recognise and address the invisible barriers to women’s progress in business, our actions reverberate in our communities and in society generally. These actions accelerate gender equality and create a better world for our daughters and their daughters.

Download the Three Barriers White Paper here and please do let me know how you get on with answering the ‘guiding principles’ questions above.


World Economic Forum insight Report (2021). Global Gender Gap Report.

Cassells, R & Duncan, A (2020). Gender Equity Insights 2020: Delivering the Business Outcomes, BCEC|WGEA Gender Equity Series, Issue #5, March 2020