Making Gender Inclusion Part of Your Corporate DNA

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

“The problem with gender is that it prescribes who we should be, rather than recognizing how we are.”

— Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian Novelist

Companies across the world are fighting a war for high-potential talent to address their need to stay creative and innovative in order to remain on top of their competition.

An increasing part of that talent pool is female graduates. Since the 1990s, women started to outpace men in higher education participation and graduation rates in OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries. Women now account for rates of up to 65% of the enrolled population in countries like Poland, Sweden, and Brazil, or almost 60% of the population of master’s degrees programs in countries like the U.S. and Canada. Yet corporate boards and the executive levels of multinational organizations still lack female faces in their ranks.

Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, has noted that “despite these educational gains, women continue to lag behind men in employment, income, business ownership, research, and politics. This pattern of inequality suggests that societal expectations and cultural norms regarding the appropriate roles for men and women, as well as inherent biological differences between the sexes, are limiting the benefits of women’s educational advantage.”

The World Economic Forum’s Gender Report estimates the rate of economic participation for women worldwide to be at less than two-thirds of men’s contribution.

Looking at the countries that are doing the best in terms of gender equality, it is difficult to overlook the success of Scandinavia. Although differences exist, the salary gaps between men and women are at the lowest level in the world in countries such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Therefore, Scandinavia is often described as a role model for other countries. These countries certainly haven’t found all the answers and many of their approaches cannot easily be adopted as-is in other regions of the world, but there are certain elements worth examining.

History, Religion, and Education

Historically, Nordic countries have long been concerned about equal rights, giving women the right to vote before many other nations (Sweden in 1919, Norway in 1913, Iceland and Denmark in 1915, Finland in 1906). Informal pressure to increase women’s participation in political parties has led to 40% female participation in Scandinavia (Professor Dahlerup, Stockholm University), the largest in the world.

Furthermore, Sweden made education for boys and girls compulsory as early as 1842. Researchers found a strong relationship between literacy rate and egalitarianism, meaning that the more literate society is, the more egalitarian it is likely to be.

The Lutheran churches of Scandinavian countries also contributed to concern about gender equality, viewing certain individual rights as inherent. Female priests have been allowed since the middle of the 20th century. The Church of Sweden, a Lutheran church, has a female archbishop, providing a female role model in a traditionally patriarchal part of society.

Cultural Values and Inclusive Leadership

These modern Nordic social democratic states emphasize a leadership style that reflects their cultural norms of honesty, egalitarianism, and consensus. Citizens’ expectation of their social and economic system includes access to free education, a social safety net that allows parents to work while raising a family, and decent pay. Strong trade unions are at work to promote gender equality.

Anja Stentoft, Aperian Global's Learning Operations & Engagement Manager, based in Kolding

“Born in Denmark, I have been raised to believe that women and men are equal in every aspect of life. As an example, it is only natural that I and my husband share domestic family responsibilities such as picking the children up from daycare, cooking, and cleaning. We were also in agreement that when the children were born, we both wanted to enjoy some maternity/paternity leave with them, which fortunately is very common in Denmark. That same mindset is prevalent in the Danish workplace as well, making it easier for both men and women to create a healthier balance between work and leisure time.”

Work flexibility and work-life integration are highly important values in Nordic societies. The notion of not “living to work” but rather “working to live” is inherent in strict adherence to work schedules, strong laws to compensate for overtime work, and many flexibility measures made available to increase employees’ satisfaction and engagement.

Vikki Olesen, Senior Global Account Manager, based in Denmark

“Moving from the corporate U.S. work environment to Denmark, I was pleasantly surprised by Danish employers respect for family and work-life balance. Here the official work-week is 37.5 hours and it is standard to have 6 weeks of vacation. Amazingly the productivity level is high. I attribute this to leading a balanced life, and to the fact that work and private lives are quite separate… Meaning that when people are at work they are very focused on getting the job done and don’t socialize as much with colleagues. This enables them to leave on-time more often to be with their families.”

In order to not only attract women into organizations but also retain and promote them, measures such as stronger family support policies, equal pay structures, flexible working hours and mentoring programs need to be implemented and measured for continuous success in building an inclusive environment. Working structures such as those established in Scandinavian companies and public institutions might prove to be a helpful starting point, but companies should recognize that it takes more than quotas and policies to shatter those glass ceilings. It takes a shift in mindset to view beyond stereotypes, just as Mrs. Adichie mentions in the opening quote from her inspiring TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story.

Ask yourself: What are actions and measures you can take as a manager or leader to encourage gender-inclusive behavior and create an environment that not only acknowledges the benefit of gender diversity but makes it part of your corporate DNA?