International Women's Day 2016

Today is International Women’s Day! Why are we still debating equality in 2016?

8/03/2016, Martina Macpherson

International Women’s Day has marked the challenges and achievements of women for more than 100 years – and we are now looking ahead another 15 years to the world’s gender equality goals.

Themed this year around “Planet 50-50 by 2030″, the United Nations-backed event will be celebrating women’s rights in more than 40 countries.

It will look at how to ensure the 2030 Agenda – which positions women’s empowerment as at the centre of global sustainability plans – can be concretely achieved over the coming years.

Gender equality, female empowerment and development remain still at the core of the debate – and also drive the human governance debate around corporate diversity, talent management and equal pay.

1. Historic Context

It’s been the socialists around the world who first put forward the idea of advancing women’s suffrage through a day to celebrate the achievements of women throughout history. Here are a few interesting facts:

  • The Socialist Party of America organized the first National Women’s Day in New York in 1909 to commemorate the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
  • An annual “International Women’s Day” was first organised by the German socialist and theorist Clara Zetkin along with 100 delegates from 17 countries in March 1911. The event was marked by more than one million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, with hundreds of demonstrations across the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  • The Russian Revolution also has International Women’s Day to thank – demonstrations by women demanding “bread and peace” in 1917 sparked other strikes and protests, which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II four days later and granted women the right to vote.
  • International Women’s Day became a more popularized holiday in and after 1975, when the United Nations invited member states to celebrate it on March 8.

Since 2001, the holiday has had a sponsored website and an annual theme. The current goals fit in with the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development“.

The new agenda, which is meant to build on the unfulfilled “Milennium Development Goals”, has a stand-alone goal just for the empowerment of women and girls as a core means of tackling economic underperformance, global overpopulation and poverty worldwide.


2. #PledgeForParity –
Why are we debating gender equality in 2016?

This year’s International Women’s Day theme, #PledgeForParity, encourages individuals and organizations to sign a “parity pledge” to commit to promoting gender equality in daily life and in the workplace. So why are gender equality and parity still relevant today?

When the gender equality debate first began, women were demanding that they be given the right to vote – which they received in Britain in 1918 but just last year in Saudi Arabia – to hold public office and to be given equal employment rights as men.

The World Economic Forum ranks 142 countries on women’s equality on a scale of 0 (no equality) to 1 (full equality). The score is based on many factors, like how many women participate in the workforce and how well they’re paid compared to men; health and educational outcomes; and political empowerment and representation in government. The latest report provides some interesting findings: For instance, Great Britain just ranks at #18 and the United States at #28, and while they do not struggle with the same maternal mortality rates, human rights abuses, and other challenges that impoverished developing countries face, poverty and economic inequality still hit women hard - no matter where they live.

3. Where do key gender inequality issues occur?

According to the United Nation’s annual report on the progress of the world’s women, the worldwide gap between women and men remains particularly stubborn on issues of work. Women do more unpaid household work than men, and get paid less when they do work in the formal economy alongside men. However, women are predicted to face another 118-year wait for the gender pay gap to close, with only 55 of the 500 richest people in the world being women.

Are there better opportunities for women in developed versus emerging markets – not really. According to the Economist’s latest “glass-ceiling index”, which aims to reveal where women have the best chances of equal treatment at work, the picture is pretty mixed. Unsurprisingly, the Nordic countries—Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland—come out top overall. In these countries, women are present in the labour force at similar rates to men. While countries such as the U.S. and Britain feature below the “OECD average”. Interestingly, board composition and workforce diversity & inclusion appear in the Top 15 most regulated topics in Norway, according to analytics house eRevalue, but are not at all on the agenda in South Korea (the country also features at the bottom of the “glass-ceiling index”).

Has legislation helped? Not always – here is an example from the UK: Since theEqual Pay Act 1970, it is illegal for an employer to pay a woman less than a man for doing equivalent work. However, this doesn’t always work out in practice. In 2010, around 5,000 former employees of Birmingham City Council won a landmark case, in which it was ruled that the women were entitled to millions of pounds in back pay. Bonus structures meant that care workers and cleaners earned less than workers in more male-dominated areas, despite being on the same pay grade.

According to Opportunity Now (UK), who campaign for gender diversity in business, an average woman working in the UK between the ages of 18 and 59 can expect to earn a cumulative £351,000 less than a man over the course of her working life. The Fawcett Society places the current pay gap for full time workers at 13.9%.

And the pay gap persists up to the top level: in 2015, a survey from the CMI and XPertHR found that while men in director roles earned an average salary of £138,699, their female equivalents took home just £123,756. Bonuses were almost twice as high for men, at an average of £4,898, compared with £2,531 for women. The situation worsens as women grow older, with the pay gap increasing from 6% for women and men in their 20s to 38% for women and men in their 60s.

The research also found that, not only are older women earning less, but there are also fewer of them in executive positions. Women comprise 67% of the workforce in entry-level roles, and continue to outnumber men in junior management roles, but female representation drops to 43% for senior management. Even more worryingly, just 29% of director-level posts are held by women.

In March 2015, the publication of Women on Boards: Davies Review Annual Report 2015 also revealed that the number of women holding board-level positions in FTSE 100 companies reached 23.5% – just short of the 25% target set by government.

4. So what’s the business and investment case for gender equality?

Over the last few years, various studies have provided a number of reasons as to why it is important for corporate boards to be more diverse.

For instance, research has shown that the broader range of perspectives represented in diverse groups require individuals to work harder to come to a consensus, which can lead to better decisions. Some research has found that gender diverse boards may have a positive impact on a company’s financial performance[1] - but other research has not. These mixed results depend, in part, on differences in how financial performance was defined and what methodologies were used. Various reports on board diversity also highlight that diverse boards make good business sense because they can better reflect the employee and customer base, and they can tap into the skills of a wider talent pool.

Below you find two recent industry studies that have explored the links between gender diversity, female leadership and positive performance:

  • EY and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, just (Feb. 2016) undertook a comprehensive study of gender inequality in corporate leadership, surveying nearly 22,000 organizations across a wide variety of industries in 91 countries. Among all these different organizations, the results came through clearly and consistently: a firm with female leaders will outperform a firm with none. In fact, if 30% of a company’s leaders are women, its net margin will be six percentage points higher than a firm with no women in their executive ranks. And the benefits don’t stop there. Ananalysis of the S&P Composite 1500, for instance, has shown that companies with women in top leadership positions have an “increase in innovation intensity”. Other research has shown that teams with more women are better at logical thinking, coordination, planning, problem solving – and have a higher collective intelligence overall.
  • And in 2014, Robeco’s Governance and Active Ownership team, itsQuantitative Equity team, RobecoSAM and Tilburg University researched the link between gender diversity of company boards and stock returns. In their analysis, they have found a positive relationship between gender diversity of company boards and stock returns. The results are promising: the conclusion holds using different methodologies and after correction for other performance-related exposures and effects. The link is especially visible from 2009 onwards.

So the business case for female leaders is loud and clear but there is no easy fix. More defined legislation in the context of corporate risk management, better transparency and more disclosure on female employee numbers and diversity issues such as equal opportunities and pay could be a step in the right direction.

The U.S. and EU countries are leading the way: In December 2009, the SEC in the U.S. published a rule that requires companies to disclose certain information on board diversity in proxy statements filed with the Commission. Also, if boards have a policy for considering diversity when identifying director nominees, they must disclose how this policy is implemented and how the board assesses the effectiveness of its policy.

One of SEC’s objectives is to ensure that investors have access to high-quality disclosure materials to inform investment decisions. So in 2015, a group of large U.S. public pension fund investors were interviewed by GAO and questioned about the usefulness of information companies provide in response to the SEC’s board diversity disclosure requirements. Consequently, these investors petitioned SEC to require specific disclosure on board directors’ gender, race, and ethnicity. Without this information, some investors may not be fully informed in making decisions. SEC officials said they plan to consider the petition as part of an ongoing effort to review all disclosure requirements.

From 2018, EU companies with more than 250 employees will have to disclose how much they are paying in salaries and bonuses to their male and female staff. It’s hoped that transparency will make it easier for employees to recognize when they’re being discriminated against, and force employers to take equality seriously.

5. Can investors make a difference in the gender equality and parity debate?

There are also opportunities for investors to take action.

Through active ownership and engagement, investors can mandate investee companies to employ more women in senior executive roles and on board.

And investors should also get more actively involved in the public policy debate – the large U.S. pension funds mentioned above have set a precedent.

To recap the facts on International Women’s Day – the gender gap in corporate leadership isn’t just a women’s issue.

It’s an issue of competitiveness and hence of business performance. Simply put, diversity in leadership enhances corporate performance.

It can also help foster a corporate culture that develops women and supports the careers of future female leaders.

So women AND men, let’s please move on from a pledge and from “one day I will…” (see Google Doodle, 8th March 2016
to “today I can act”.


For more information about SI Partner’s human governance and diversity projects, please get in touch or meet me at the upcoming “Women in Microfinance Dinner” on 12th April 2016 in London. For more information on leadership, female empowerment and youth development, please also visit


[1] For an overview of research on the impact of gender diversity on firm performance, see W. Gary Simpson, David A. Carter, and Frank D’Souza, “What Do We Know About Women on Boards?”, Journal of Applied Finance, No. 2 (2010) and Deborah L. Rhode and Amanda K. Packel, Diversity on Corporate Boards: How Much Difference Does Difference Make, 39 Del. J. Corp. L., 2 (2014).