Women in Leadership

Written by Olivia Arigho-Stiles on . Posted in Current features, Features

Brigid-Laffan-1Brigid Laffan is Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, and Director of the EUI’s Global Governance Programme.

Women may hold up half the sky but they hold up barely a ceiling tile when it comes to the FTSE 100’s boardrooms. Less than one in 10 executive directors at Britain’s top companies is a woman, research has revealed, and the situation is even bleaker in Germany and France. In Europe’s top 100 companies, men hold 89% of executive committee jobs while women hold 6% of staff roles.

So what can be done to address this imbalance?

Professor Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) and Director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute (EUI) believes that mandatory quotas are an important tool in addressing the most egregious gender disparities, at least in the short term.

Speaking to EUI Times, she explains “When you look at banks, stock exchanges and big companies we see that women are underrepresented in two ways; on boards at the non-executive level, and as senior executives. Now what do you do about that? All the change initiatives appear to have come from government, regulators and civil society pressure. So then the question is, is it necessary to have quotas? Affirmative action has always been a contested issue among both women and men. I would not favour the establishment of quotas as a permanent response. Quotas have a very important role to play in a transition phase where you indicate clearly that the status quo is unacceptable and you must make progress. [They] ensure you begin to get more diversity.”

Laffan is keen to stress the global dimensions to the gender gap at an elite level. “There are a lot of very big differences across the world. You get more women in the boardrooms of the rich world and fewer in Asia and other emerging economies. In China and Brazil it is extremely low. So it’s not just about what happens in the established economies but also the emergent economies.”

Laffan believes that the gender disparity derives at root from the fact that women have children. Or more specifically, from the failure of many employers to allow employees to adapt their work around family life. “We know that in a significant number of disciplines women are out-performing their male counterparts, but women are almost absent from the senior echelons.”

As such, for Laffan the problem is less tied up with gender and more with failure of businesses to make these necessary adjustments for family life. “I don’t’ see it as just a gender issue, I see it as a family issue.” She continues, “There are particular pressures on women. I think we can still do an enormous amount of work on flexibility, on stopping the clock, so if a woman takes extended maternity leave, it is seen as part of career progression. The provision of crèches helps. But it also requires an agreement within families that child rearing is not just the preserve of mothers.”

However, in an age of austerity in which the GDP of European economies is stagnating rather than increasing, how likely is it that these adjustments can be made by companies feeling the financial pinch? Laffan concedes that the task of adapting work to fit around the needs of family is tricky but nonetheless essential. “I accept the challenges, I don’t think you can say it’s easy. But if companies cannot call on all of the human capital that exists in society, that’s also a problem for productivity. Contented employees tend to be highly motivated, highly committed and highly productive. I’m not saying there are magic formulas but certainly there are ways of ensuring women and men have choice.”

In many ways, Laffan’s sentiments more generally reflect some of the changes that have taken place in the priorities of the feminist movement since the 1970s. Though never a homogenous movement, the efforts of second wave feminists were propelled largely by a radical ideological critique of existing gender and economic paradigms. A force that was marginal and countercultural, the call for gender equality has now become normalised and institutionalised. Indeed in recent years, western societies have seen the rise of ‘corporate feminism’ which stresses women’s assimilation into the institutions once considered central to their oppression, epitomised in Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean-In’ philosophy.

A Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sandberg has drawn criticism from some feminists for claiming in her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, that the gender gap in part owes itself to women holding themselves back from leadership roles through their own socialised behaviour. But more fundamentally, many point out that contrary to Sandberg’s starting premise, securing gains for women in the corporate elite does not necessarily translate into gains for women as a whole. So how far do we actually need a radical reshaping of our current economic structures in order to truly advance’s women’s rights?

Laffan is deeply sceptical about the radical economic potential of feminist critiques today. She declares flatly, “I don’t think feminism on its own is going to radically alter the economic structure of the world. The pressure of climate change is more likely to have a profound influence. And nor do I think all issues are economic. Social norms, culture plays an important part. This is not simply a matter of material drivers on their own, there are deep historical factors at play.”

For Laffan, radical change, if by that is meant revolutionary change, is neither feasible nor desirable. “I don’t pin my hopes on a radical change in the economic system. For men and women, the rising inequalities in the world are very serious but that is not just a question of gender, even if women find themselves more disadvantaged than men when it comes to economic power.”

Pragmatic in her reflections on the trajectory of feminism over her career, Laffan explains, “Looking back I don’t think we had a political programme in the 1960s and 1970s that was capable of getting the support of a majority of women in our societies. We had an important role in changing institutions, but we were a relatively small, restricted, elitist group of women.”

Ultimately Laffan is optimistic about the prospect of change to come, as well as social and economic advances secured so far. “There’s no doubt there has been a very significant increase in women’s financial and economic power because more women now work. That’s a very significant and important change. Women are now powerful income earners, although there are income-gender gaps.”

She adds, I know my two daughters live in a world which offers them many more opportunities than even I would have had. We now have Christine Lagarde as head of the International Monetary Fund and the head of the Fed [Federal Reserve] is a woman [Janet Yellen], and that’s a major breakthrough. No longer are those global financial institutions entirely in the hands of men.”

It remains clear that although women are still underrepresented in the world’s corporate elite, change is slowly underway. Given the immense shifts noticeable over even a single generation, there is ample reason to remain optimistic that gender parity in the world’s leading institutions will be imminently realised.

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