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Breaking the bias and shattering the glass ceiling – gender diversity and balance in the workplace

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

✦ “The freedom to work – by choice, in conditions of dignity, safety and fairness – is integral to human welfare. Guaranteeing that women have access to this right is an important end in itself.” - International Labour Organisation

International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8th this year with the message #breakthebias.

Whereas there have been significant strides in recent years in efforts to attain gender equality, there is still a significant way to go before we are anywhere near the levels that can be considered fair and appropriate. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead, whatever the scenario.

Here we take a peek into the corporate world and how the plight of women differs in certain parts of the world while hearing of ways we can move forward and create a truly diverse and balanced workplace.

‘Broken rung’

Providing a holistic overview, McKinsey showed in their 2021 Women in the Workplace study that the progression of women into senior management positions in corporate America is far slower than that of their male counterparts, with only 86 women being promoted for every 100 men, a dynamic that they label the “broken rung” on the career ladder.

Mercer states that hidden bias in a major stumbling block when it comes to hiring, succession planning and performance management that are most detrimental to women and holding companies back from creating parity and equity.

However, progress and change are being witnessed, even if at a slow pace. The number of women in C-level positions has increased by more than 10% in the last five years, says EDHEC Business School, and 87% of companies today are highly committed to gender diversity, compared to just 56% in 2012.

In their Sustainability Yearbook review last year, S&P Global detailed how regulatory frameworks have been a major driving force towards increasing gender diversity within companies, with the EU leading the charge. France had the highest representation of women at board level with 45%, Norway 39%, Sweden 38%, Italy 37%, Belgium 36%, the UK 34% and Germany 33%. Russia was the lowest on the index with just 10% of the board being female.

Somewhat surprisingly, the USA only had 27% of its corporate board members listed as female, with its northern neighbour Canada only slightly higher at 30%. In Latin America the totals were low with Colombia leading the way on 18%, Brazil on 14% and Mexico a lowly 8%.

Australia leads the way in the Asia Pacific region with 30% of corporate boards having female representation. Malaysia totalled 27%, despite a 2016 law stating any company with more than 250 employees must have boards with at least 30% female representation.

Singapore listed third on the index with 19%, Thailand just behind on 18%. India, where law states it is obligatory to have at least one female director on the board, scored 17%, Hong Kong 13%, Taiwan 12%, Japan 11% and China 10%. South Korea brought up the rear with a worrying 4%.

Diversified workplace at Vermilion Pinstripes
Diversified workplace at Vermilion Pinstripes

The same study states that an increase Sustainability review again which states that eventually the conversation needs to shift to “recognise women for their abilities, experience and skills rather than branding them as diversity trophies. Companies and investors can help the world to wake up to the possibility that women deserve a say in the decision making process as legitimate leaders and fully-entitled human beings.”

‘Trickle-down effect’

Of course, a more equal gender representation can only be a good thing, generating what S&P alludes to as a trickle-down effect on the rest of the workforce that can contribute to breaking down stereotypes on women in leadership and encourage women to pursue their careers further. It can create role models and standard bearers and encourage others to seek roles which they would have not otherwise considered and to ask for more raises and promotions.

The same study states that an increased representation of women at board level can minimise excessive risk-taking which can ultimately enhance profitability and coporate reputation. “These outcomes are not negligible for companies and their shareholders, especially in times of a global pandemic which will require companies to differentiate themselves from their industry peers,” the report notes.

Furthermore, a study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states that gender balance at all levels of business is better for companies and economies as a whole, adding that two-thirds of companies surveyed agreed that diversity initiatives improved their business outcomes.

“Gender diversity in management is necessary for competitive business performance,” the report notes. “Most businesses will go to great lengths to achieve a 2 or 3% improvement in their profit margins. Among companies surveyed by the ILO that track the impact of gender diversity in management, over two thirds of companies report 5 to 20% profit increases.”

Research from global digital media and events business Unleash goes even further, suggesting that gender equal companies achieve up to 41% higher revenue.

Investing in female talent

So how do we maintain the positive momentum of increasing gender diversity, not just at board level, but across the enterprise?

“Companies need to hire and promote more women into senior management positions,” S&P Global says in its Sustainability Yearbook review. “This presents opportunities for companies to access new talent pools and increase innovation and efficiency.”

Investing in female talent early on is therefore essential which can ultimately diminish any biases and negative stereotypes around women’s ability to lead, which can hopefully address issues around unequal pay and gender pay gaps.

JohJu, Veronica and Chiara featured on Brilliant-Online

Female Talents: JohJu, communications strategist with Vermilion Pinstripes; Veronica Lind, marketing strategist and creator of the Modern Marketing Framework (TM) and Chiara from HubSpot

“Shareholders have their role to play in this shift, as they can push companies to adopt better practices and improve their performance in terms of gender equality,” comments S&P. “They can act faster than governments by imposing their own quotas.”

The FTSE Women Leaders Review is an independent, business-led framework supported by the Government, which sets recommendations for Britain’s largest companies to improve the representation of Women on Boards and in Leadership positions. In its 2022 report it detailed four key steps to continue a more gender diverse and balanced workplace:

- The voluntary target for FTSE350 Boards & for FTSE 350 Leadership teams is increased to a minimum of 40% women’s representation by the end of 2025.

- FTSE 350 companies should have at least one women in the Chair, Senior Independent Director role on the Board and/or one woman in the Chief Executive Officer or Finance Director role by the end of 2025.

- Key stakeholders should continue to set best-practice guidelines or use alternative mechanisms to encourage any FTSE 350 Board that has not yet achieved the previous 33% target for the end of 2020, to do so.

- The scope of the Review is extended beyond FTSE 350 companies to include the largest 50 private companies in the UK by sales.

‘Educate and network’

Looking forward, while learning from and being mindful of the past, raising awareness and educating is all we can ever do as we strive to achieve and improve, in whatever situation. It is something Sarah Nichols, Marketing Director ANZ, Bacardi-Martini Australia, alludes to an interview with The Shout.

“When looking at ways to ‘break the bias’, my advice would be to educate and network. Unconscious bias is not simply a gender issue but something that needs to be addressed throughout organisations, through training and education addressing the effects of bias and how to uncover it,” Nichols said.

“In my opinion, transparent communication and promoting a culture of meritocracy are key,” she adds. “Whilst this can be easier said than done, setting an expectation within your organisation of your career goals and ambitions, whilst facilitating open discussion about bias and supporting all voices at all levels are ways of ensuring people are heard and understood, limiting the opportunity for bias. Secondly, creating networks both inside and outside of the organisation of people that encourage you and advocate for you, will be pivotal in your development and support your success throughout your career.”

Danielle Allen, Co-founder, Two Birds Brewing, told The Shout: “There’s a couple of really leading women who have done such great work to break some of those biases down… There’s a small pocket of the industry that do really well at it, but it’s about spreading the word into more mainstream areas around Australia.

“I’m not sure if there is one big solution or remedy, I think it’s a whole lot of small efforts. It starts with every community and everybody being responsible and accountable for it.”

In conclusion, we turn to S&P Global’s Sustainability review again which states that eventually the conversation needs to shift to “recognise women for their abilities, experience and skills rather than branding them as diversity trophies. Companies and investors can help the world to wake up to the possibility that women deserve a say in the decision-making process as legitimate leaders and fully-entitled human beings.”


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