The fantastic thing about being a journalist is that it offers you a great opportunity to make a difference.
Sadly, however, as a business journalist you tend to find that such opportunities are rather more limited than those of your peers who are reporting from the front line in war zones or investigating abuses in care homes.
Those opportunities do still come to business journalists, as Robert Peston will attest, but on a day-to-day basis you don’t usually feel that you are rocking the world as a result of the work you do.
That’s why I was so delighted that EY asked me to be involved in its Women³. The Power of Three forum, part of its Women. Fast forward platform, which aims to speed up the rate at which gender parity will be achieved in the workplace.
The forum has brought together leaders from corporate, entrepreneurial and government organizations from across Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa to find practical ways of achieving gender parity sooner.
This week, it launched its initial white paper – Who holds the key to closing the skills gap? – at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. I am very proud to say that I wrote the white paper with the team at EY.
I began working on the project in the early days and have been privileged to meet a number of very inspiring and dedicated women and men as a result of my involvement in it. These individuals – who were both from within EY and a wide range of external organisations – have really opened my eyes to the huge challenges that women face in the workplace today. As a woman, I obviously did have an appreciation of the issues involved beforehand, but I now realise that the problem is far worse than I had previously comprehended.
So what have I learned?
I have learned that while women theoretically enter the workforce on an equal footing with men in many countries, they immediately face barriers to progression.
Hiring managers often demonstrate unconscious bias when placing young women in roles. Also, women themselves make career choices in anticipation of the fact that they may want to have a family later on – because they believe that compromising on their career is the only way they will be able to achieve both.
Furthermore, there is a sad dearth of senior female role models in many organisations around the globe, which unfortunately gives young women the message that it is extremely difficult to reach the top.
Women who are in the middle stages of their career must often balance a wide range or responsibilities, both inside and outside the workplace. Unfortunately, however, most workplaces are still structured in a way that makes it difficult for them to balance those responsibilities.
Working hours can be rigid and some types of organisations are still defined by their macho “long hours” cultures. Childcare can be expensive and if travel costs are also taken into account, it may not be financially viable for a woman to work.
Finally, policies that are intended to help women in the workplace are often not properly monitored or enforced. Plenty of organisations like to claim that they are supportive of women, but just how supportive are they in practice? There can be a big gap between the PR spiel and the reality.
The biggest eye-opener for me in the whole project, however, was the terrible situation facing experienced women in the workplace. Women make up half the world’s population and we are all getting older every day. Yet there is an appalling lack of women aged 45 or over in senior roles and in visible roles (eg in the media). It seems that we just disappear off a career cliff once our childbearing years are behind us.
This is an extraordinary waste of talent and experience. Older women have a huge amount to contribute to the workplace – there is nothing like raising a family to hone your negotiation and time management skills, for example – and in an age of skills shortages, why are we allowing them to simply vanish?
Research by the McKinsey Global Institute has found that if women played an identical role in labour markets to men, as much as $28 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025. That’s an increase of 26%!
The fact of the matter is that gender inequality comes at a cost to us all. In the foreword to EY’s white paper, Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, says: “The economic empowerment of women is absolutely critical to business innovation and productivity, poverty eradication, the formation of progressive social policies and the creation of a world that is richer in every sense.”
I really hope that the work done by EY, including the white paper that I helped to write, will start to break down the career barriers that hinder women in all parts of the world – for the sake of everyone who is alive today and everyone in the generations to come.
As a journalist, it’s hard to imagine making a bigger difference than that.
Click here to read: Who holds the key to closing the skills gap?
Sally Percy is a freelance journalist and managing director of Love Letters Publishing, a specialised content agency for financial services businesses. http://www.loveletterspublishing.co.uk