What if ‘fig leaf feminism’ stands in the way of equality at the top


When Citigroup’s Jane Fraser pulled out of the Global Finance Leaders Forum in Hong Kong, the huge event had few female speakers. Not only that, but it re-emphasizes how few companies are still run by women.

Fraser was supposed to be one of only three female panelists at the Global Finance Leaders Investment Summit, which heralds the reopening of Hong Kong after nearly three years of strict Covid quarantine and Beijing’s heightened political scrutiny. Amundi SA chief executive Valerie Baudson was another, but she also withdrew.

That’s why now is the time to move the discussion from the boardroom to the top management. It is no longer enough for companies to be complacent about adding women to their boards. They need to prioritize acquiring – and retaining them – a management role with P&L responsibility – which would traditionally be the CEO. Investors, for their part, need to focus on how companies can achieve this goal, pushing for policies that promote gender balance at the top.

Despite increased gender diversity on boards in the US, Europe, Australia, and soon Hong Kong, women remain woefully underrepresented in the top jobs. At some point, more board members may also no longer be considered a criterion for meaningful advancement, as it won’t reflect diversity across all shades. In the United States, for example, women of color are underperformed in leadership ranks.

Of the 503 companies in the S&P 500, only 37, or 7.4 percent, are led by women. There are only 16 female CEOs in Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 index, accounting for only 8%. Globally, just 6% of the 1,507 companies in the MSCI World Index had female leaders as of the end of November, all according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In Australia, female board representation is currently well over 30%, and it is estimated that it will be 100 years before women hold at least 40% of all CEO positions in the 200 largest companies. According to the 2022 Census of Women in Chief Executive Officers, among the 300 largest companies, there are no more women on executive leadership teams this year than last year, and of the 28 CEOs appointed in a 12-month period, only Four are women.

Companies are struggling to retain the few female leaders they have in the United States. McKinsey & Company 2022 report on women in the workplace. And LeanIn.Org found that female leaders are changing jobs at the highest rate ever, dubbed “The Great Breakup.” This leaves too few women advancing to senior leadership positions: only 87 women advance from entry-level to manager positions for every 100 men.

It would be unwise to miss out on the views and contributions of 50% of the population. Not for business, not for gender equality, not for corporate governance. It also sends a depressing message to future generations of aspiring female leaders. It does nothing to address the gender pay gap, which averages just over 10 percent across OECD countries.

Boards can ensure that they are not only diverse, but that women have the same influence as men, rather than just a token increase — a trend researchers at the UTS and Universities of Alberta have dubbed “fig-leaf feminism.” doctrine”. Women directors must be allowed to act as agents, to draw on their skills and expertise, and to be heard. That way, they can have a greater say and influence over how the company achieves gender balance at all levels of its executive ranks. Boards also need to offer a wider selection of potential female appointees. While women hold more seats, a study by researchers found that this doesn’t match the actual increase in women, suggesting the same name appears on multiple boards.

We should start tracking women more rigorously in COO, CFO, CIO/CTO roles – which are the functions of the CEO – to monitor how companies are building solid female executive pipelines . Much of this work has already been done: HESTA, the A$68 billion ($46 billion) Australian pension fund, has been spearheading an initiative for companies to commit to a 40:40 vision of gender balance in top executive teams by 2030. Change requires men in positions of power to stand with women to achieve gender parity in leadership.

And, as much as I hate to say it, do women need to be hungrier to get to the top? Since Sheryl Sandberg’s seminal book nearly 10 years ago, the lean-to argument has been shown to be flawed, but perhaps more ambition can’t go astray.

This is important because women leaders still face a headwind: their judgment is more likely to be questioned and they do more work that is often not recognized or valued. Appointing them to leadership positions has long been considered risky.

Developing more female leaders could also see flexibility become more acceptable. This is especially important after the pandemic showed that women took on more parenting and household responsibilities. Here, companies need to shift mindsets: They must stop stigmatizing women who ask for flexible work, while heroizing the men who do. Or as Cate Luzio, founder and CEO of Luminary Legacy LLC, a networking platform for women, recently put it: “Women are promoted by performance, men are promoted by potential.”

Deepening the shallow talent pool of female CEOs goes a long way, which is why we must start examining gender diversity in the executive ranks so that more (more, more) companies will be led by Jane Frasers and Valerie Leadership of the day Balderson. When they can’t hold an event, it stops making headlines.

More views from Bloomberg:

• Female CEOs are becoming rarer in industry: Brooke Sutherland

• Sandberg’s underappreciated legacy of ‘excellence’: Sarah Green Carmichael

• Hong Kong’s Old Boys Club is on borrowed time: Matthew Brooker

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

More stories like this can be found at bloomberg.com/opinion

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