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Women in global leadership: How to bridge the gender di...

Defend Truth


How to bridge the global gender leadership divide during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond


Professor Soraya Seedat is the Executive Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University.

In the global healthcare sector, women represent around 70% of the workforce, but hold only 25% of senior leadership roles. For every 16 heads of state worldwide, there is only one woman, and women comprise less than a quarter of the world’s health ministers. They also earn, on average, 28% less than men.

Across both private and public sector organisations there is a gender divide in leadership, particularly at the highest rungs of decision-making. For the majority of working women around the world, this gender divide becomes more apparent with career progression. All too often, talented and aspirant women do not realise their full potential and leadership capabilities.

The pipeline of women in leadership around the world is a “leaky” one. Women who aspire to leadership positions face many more barriers than men. These barriers include inadequate governance of the leadership pipeline contributing to the “leaky” state; gender inequities in perceptions of credibility, performance standards and reward (with women being held to higher performance standards and lower reward); work-family role conflicts; widespread gender stereotyping of leadership styles; exclusion of women from the informal networks that men are privy to; few targeted leadership development opportunities; and a lack of diverse “women leader” role models to look up to.

Historically, these hurdles have had a pervasive impact on female-male leadership imbalances in business and academia that we continue to see today. Unbiased assessment of leadership potential is a first step in nurturing the potential of women. Yet there is good evidence that women pay the price of leadership in terms of performance appraisal by their superiors, regardless of whether they exhibit “out-of-gender” role behaviours (male stereotypical behaviours) like achievement orientation, or being a change catalyst, or “in-gender” role behaviours (female stereotypical behaviours) like empathy and engaging others in the workplace.

For decades we have seen an inverse relationship between the proportional representation of women in business, health, academia and other sectors and the seniority of jobs they hold. In the global healthcare sector, for example, women represent around 70% of the workforce, but hold only 25% of senior leadership roles (e.g. deans of medical schools, ministers of health, heads of global health organisations). For instance, for every 16 heads of state worldwide, there is only one woman – and women comprise less than a quarter of the world’s health ministers. They also earn, on average, 28% less than men.

An assessment last year of more than 1,100 companies across 54 countries, six regions (including Africa) and more than 26 different industries found that while women in the workplace comprised 47% and 42% of support staff and professionals, respectively, they only comprised 29% of senior managers and 23% of executives. In addition, the percentage of women who held board of director seats in 2020 was just 20.6% – representing an increase of just over half a percent from 2019 (20%).  

If we progress at this rate, it is projected that it will take around 25 years (the year 2045) for women to make up 50% of corporate boards.

According to the recently published Fortune 500 for 2021, women run 23 of the companies on the Global 500 (4.6% of the total). Of these 23 companies, only six are led by women of colour (compared with just one in 2020). Though these figures represent an all-time high, they are still a stark reminder that economic power globally is still heavily male dominated. This is nothing new. It has been the status quo in business and academia for more than a century.

In order to correct the gender metrics in senior leadership, several countries have, over time, introduced quotas for women directors in publicly listed companies (for example, India, Malaysia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal), as well as state-owned companies. With regard to the latter, South Africa and Kenya are the only two African countries that have such quotas. Overall, countries with quotas have been shown to have roughly double the representation of female directors on boards compared with countries that have no quotas. Progress has, however, been far too slow and frustrating.

Sadly, Covid-19 is further widening the gender gap. Since the start of the pandemic, women have spent more time than men performing unpaid work such as childcare and housework. Also, job and wage losses resulting from Covid-19 have disproportionately affected women who have been on the frontlines of the Covid-response in so many different capacities – as healthcare workers, carers at home, community leaders, educators and heads of state, to name but a few. 

So, how can we close the gender divide in leadership, especially during the pandemic and beyond?

According to UN Women – the organisation dedicated to gender equality and women empowerment to lead – we should start by ensuring a better gender balance in decision-making at all levels within institutions that are responsible for Covid-19 response and recovery efforts, and equipping political leaders with tools to ensure that there are delineated gender equality and women empowerment mechanisms in place, and gender responsive policies and practices in budgeting and planning in pandemic and post-pandemic recovery efforts, involving women’s organisations in high-level decision-making, and creating safe spaces for women leaders on and offline to share good practices, network, innovate, be thought leaders and lead long-term recovery efforts.

From the vantage point of academic medicine – the work space that I am in – the havoc and disruption posed by the pandemic presents an opportunity to promote equity, diversity and positive change in leadership. This entails changing the work culture of bias and inappropriate use of power. Implicit biases favouring men as leaders permeate decision-making processes around the engagement and employment of women in academic and clinical leadership positions.  

These subtle gender biases are ubiquitous and they have to go. Luckily, implicit biases are malleable and can be effectively mitigated through educational interventions that serve to increase awareness and teach strategies for overcoming bias through behavioural change.

Changing the workplace culture requires actively entrenching a zero-tolerance strategy for workplace bullying and sexual harassment. One way to do this is to identify champions for gender equality within the organisation – women and men in the upper echelon of leadership who are visible and espouse a repertoire of leadership behaviours that future women leaders will look up to. 

These champions can facilitate the establishment of peer support networks, aggressively promote organisational leadership programmes for women, and enable women to advance in their careers and navigate concerns related to meeting self- and family-care needs, and sustaining academic productivity during the pandemic and beyond.

Women in Global Health, a global movement campaign for gender equity in global health leadership that was recently set up, highlights an uncomfortable reality: “Women still deliver health systems led by men.” Contrast that with the words of the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Women belong in all places where decisions are made.” 

Now more than ever, there needs to be protected investment in initiatives that safeguard the impact of the pandemic on women’s careers. DM


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