Gender inequality, still a reality?

Studies show that companies perform better with women on their boards. Although this is widely acknowledged, getting more women into senior leadership positions continues to be a big challenge. It’s a topic that was the subject of a recent conference at RSM.


When Rebecca Stephens became the first British woman to climb the world’s seven summits, journalists wanted to know just how she had managed it. ‘The overwhelming perception was that it must have been more difficult for me because I was a woman,’ Stephens told audience members at a Women in Leadership conference held at RSM in February. ‘And yet the reality was quite different. I had other strengths to bring to the table.’

Her story is a fitting metaphor: women climbing the corporate ladder are faced with similar attitudes, says Prof. Dianne Bevelander, founder and executive director of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO), the first academic centre of its kind in Europe dedicated to advancing women’s careers in organisations. Stevens was one of ten speakers at The 8th Summit: Women’s Ascent of Organisations, a high-profile event hosted by ECWO that focused on the obstacles preventing women from reaching the top of organisations.

They are obstacles that Prof. Bevelander and her colleagues at ECWO are determined to help women overcome, by exposing their underlying mechanisms, collaborating with organisations – even changing business education itself.

Recent statistics from the European Commission paint a sobering picture of women’s place in senior management. ‘Women constitute four per cent of all CEOs at the largest listed companies in Europe, and only 14 per cent of senior executives,’ Prof. Bevelander told academics, executives and entrepreneurs during the event. ‘The public and academic sectors fare not much better. In the Netherlands, women comprise only 17.1 per cent of all professors.’

Organisations pay the price for this lack of diversity, said chair of the ECWO Advisory Board Carien van der Laan. Across the board, companies with the highest percentage of women in management have been shown to deliver the highest returns to stakeholders, she said.

So what is holding women back? Evidence points to the prevalence of a gender bias. ‘Both men and women are more likely to hire a man than a woman with the same qualifications,’ said Bevelander. ‘Employers discriminate against mothers but not fathers – mothers are perceived as less competent and committed, and are offered less money than fathers.”

Hein Knaapen, chief HR officer at ING Bank NV, the main sponsor of ECWO, compared the bias women face in organisations to that of any other minority, such as gay men and ethnic minorities. ‘Minority groups are always treated as the “other”,’ he said.

Yet unravelling the ways in which this bias operates and how to remedy it is complex, said Bevelander. It is a bias perpetuated by both men and women. It is often subliminal. Bevelander shared the results of a study she conducted on MBA students that found that female MBAs were more likely to trust male fellow MBAs than female. ‘Even women are not supporting women,’ she said.

‘We are simply not confident that we can do it,’ said Jacqueline Brassey, an experienced consultant. ‘We can’t even talk about it because in the corporate culture lack of confidence is often mistaken for incompetence.’

Closing the gap

A common sentiment was that women should take ownership of changing public perceptions. Pauline van der Meer Mohr, independent non-executive director of Erasmus University Rotterdam and the first woman on the management board of Shell, said: ‘We cannot expect men to fight our battles for us. Choose employers who support women in leadership roles and organisations whose values align with your own.’

Jacqueline Tammenoms Bakker – currently non-executive director of CNH Industrial and a member of the supervisory board of TomTom, Unibail-Rodamco and Groupe Wendel – spoke of how she has dealt with gender bias over the course of her career. ‘When it comes to gender bias, people don’t usually intend to cause offence,’ she said. She suggested that women opt to “politely educate” instead of taking umbrage.

Award-winning entrepreneur Marlies Dekkers urged women to rise above gender stereotypes and pursue their interests. Other speakers offered women practical tips on how to fulfil their ambitions. Pioneering social network scientist Prof. Karen Stephenson demonstrated the ways in which women could tap into social media to boost their careers. International facilitator and leadership coach David Bond explained that becoming a significant voice in an organisation required women to practise having courageous conversations.

While the future looks promising, Van der Meer Mohr said, with new laws passed in the Netherlands already leading to more and more female faces in boardrooms across the country, a great deal more needs to be done.

Helping to drive this change is the ambition of ECWO, whose initiatives range from working with companies to correcting the bias that exists within business education itself.

‘Business schools shape management practices and attitudes,’ said Prof. Bevelander. ‘It seems logical that we address this as part of leadership development. We need more female role models in our case studies, more female professors. And this is what we intend to do.’

Going forward, said climber and journalist Stephens, women should not make the mistake of trying to emulate men. ‘Don’t change, just do more,’ she said. ‘What we need is diversity in leadership. We need the unique strengths that women bring.’

Find out how the ECWO is encouraging organisations to achieve gender-balanced leadership here.

This article was first published in RSM Outlook summer 2016. You can download RSM Outlook here.

RSM Outlook , 2016 Summer RSM Outlook