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In Practice

On International Women’s Day, Pressure Builds for Business Leadership to Drive Gender Equality

As we celebrate International Women’s Day — which fell this year on March 8 — its #EachforEqual call to action is clear: We are all accountable for driving change through individual actions, conversations, behaviors and mindsets, as well as through organizational leadership.

Gender equality is not exclusively a women’s issue. It’s also a business imperative, and getting it right is essential for thriving economies and societies.  

As such, it’s important for organizations to examine their data and actions to ensure the measurable progress of gender equality within their workforces. And it’s incumbent on leaders to consider what they are doing to drive and measure gender equality, because the true impetus for change must be championed from the highest levels of the organization. 

Indeed, boards and CEOs publically pledge to prioritize greater diversity and inclusion, but the pace of progress continues to be slow. Let’s consider what leaders can do to make a difference in promoting global workforce gender equality — and in driving measurable, sustainable change. 

The Pressure Is On

Certainly, organizations and their leaders are facing intense internal and external pressure to quicken the pace of change. The most recent Mercer workforce gender equality research shows that over the past five years, important factors and forces have emerged and evolved, pushing organizations toward greater progress. This pressure is coming from many directions, and few organizations are untouched in some way. 

The rise in environmental, social and corporate governance investing has increased the focus on diversity as a way for stakeholders to measure the social impact of investments. And more nations, especially in Europe, have implemented gender quotas for senior executives and boards, so they can benefit from more diverse points of view, drive change and enhance awareness of workplace gender issues. 

Mandates to bridge pervasive pay gaps are also high on the agenda, with governments in the U.K. and France, for example, issuing new reporting requirements on gender pay differences. In fact, according to The World Bank, 40 economies are enacting 62 reforms to help women realize their potential and contribute to economic growth and development globally — not only in terms of pay, but in their ability to work, own businesses and help care for their families.

Changing demographics are also putting pressure on organizations to do more to promote gender equality. Millennial and Gen Z women have benefitted from increased opportunity and experience in education, sports and more. They expect the same treatment in the workplace as well, along with equal pay — and are vocal and active in ensuring they get it. Plus, research shows that these younger employees are far more inclined to work for (and do business with) organizations that deliver on those commitments and values.

Progress Remains Elusive

As a result of these and other pressures, there are hopeful markers of progress from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2020. For example, educational attainment and health and survival — as measured by levels of primary, secondary and higher education attained by women in comparison to men, and the gap between women’s and men’s healthy life expectancy (and other health factors) — are much closer to gender parity at 96.1% and 95.7%, respectively. 

As a result, there is tangible reason to believe that we may see the first true global gender gap — educational attainment — closed in just 12 years, by 2032, mainly thanks to advancements in some developing countries. 

In addition, the time estimated to close the overall global gender gap — a measure of the report’s four areas: Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, Economic Participation and Opportunity, and Political Empowerment — has dropped to 99.5 years, compared to 108 years in the 2019 report. 

Making progress toward workforce gender equality will not be easy; however, the benefits are vast — from helping women thrive to helping economies and societies thrive.

Unfortunately, that’s still a leap backward from 2016, when the time to achieving global parity was only 83 years. Indeed, 99.5 years means we are still a lifetime away from true gender parity — a lifetime away from something that should be happening now. 

Perhaps the most unsettling regression noted in the 2020 WEF report is on the crucial pillar of economic participation, a measure of women’s income and achievement in accessing credit, land or financial products for starting companies or making a living by managing financial assets. Viewing gender parity through this economic lens, the gap grew by 55 years from last year’s report. It will now take 257 years to close, compared to 202 from last year.

Finally, the report cites wage stagnation across the board and indicates that the occupations facing declining demand are ones in data entry, accounting and administrative functions, in which women have been relatively well-represented. And in the future-focused fields of data and AI, engineering, and cloud computing, women only represent roughly a quarter to a 10th of all employees.

Getting Real About Gender Equality

This data and the pressure for progress should convince us — for we are all stakeholders here — that business change and societal change are critical to getting real about gender equality. If business leaders want to achieve equal representation of women in the workforce, with equal participation in the economy, and at equal pay, then they will need to lead the way, assessing their data and blueprints for action to create more purposeful and disruptive change within their companies and, by extension, in society. 

That realization is why, six years ago, Mercer’s When Women Thrive, Businesses Thrive research and consulting practice began working with organizations to prove and articulate the business case for gender equality as well as identify concrete steps to take to achieve it. 

Significantly, the number of respondents participating in the 2020 When Women Thrive global survey has doubled compared to its 2014 launch. The research now covers 1,150 companies in 54 countries, representing more than 7 million employees worldwide. This surge in participation includes many organizations in emerging markets, which shows that gender equality is no longer just an issue for mature economies but has become a global imperative. 

This year’s research shows that 81% of respondents across all regions rated diversity and inclusion as “important” or “very important.” Yet women’s representation has only slightly improved: 40% of workforces are female, up from 38% in 2016, along with a modest 3% uptick in female representation in executive and senior management levels. 

Progress, yes, but not enough. So what actions can individual leaders take to accelerate the effort?

First, create a personal and authentic narrative around the value of gender equality that is relevant to the organization’s mission and goals. We often hear that the business case for gender equality has been made (time and time again), but it is far more impactful, internally and externally, when leaders can tell the story of the business case unique to their organization — as well as articulate their personal commitment to gender equality.

Next, leaders should rely on data-driven insights to inform diversity and inclusion decisions and measure success, because guessing doesn’t cut it here. It’s often assumed, for example, that hiring more women is the key to advancing gender equality in the workforce; in fact, data show that retention and promotion are often more critical drivers. Similarly, organizations often fail to track and analyze data on the effectiveness of programs focused on improving gender equality, so the value and impact of those programs can’t be assessed. 

Finally, leaders should also set goals that fundamentally address the policies, processes and programs that help drive an inclusive culture that eventually leads to more diversity. In other words, they can “hardwire” the culture to ensure equality of opportunity, experience and pay for women. Leaders should also be on point to ensure accountability and transparency around progress through rigorous assessment and reporting — for example, through such processes as EDGE certification.

Making progress toward workforce gender equality will not be easy. However, the benefits are vast — from helping women thrive to helping economies and societies thrive. Individual leaders have a special opportunity to lead these efforts with purpose and conviction. Their individual actions will collectively accelerate our pace on the journey to gender equality and a brighter future. As we recognize International Women’s Day, let’s commit to closing the gender gaps within our lifetimes.

Angela Berg

Global Diversity and Inclusion Consulting Leader at Mercer

Based in Seattle, Angela Berg is Mercer’s global diversity and inclusion consulting leader, helping global organizations successfully support the diversity, inclusion and well-being of their employees. Angela has also held various leadership roles in Mercer’s Career business, including North America communication practice co-leader and west communication practice leader.

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