At ROSL, we are proud to have a 50/50 membership split between men and a women, a legacy of our founder's vision of equality which has allowed women to join as of right since 1910. Today, the club is led by D-G Diana Owen and a largely female executive team, something that is still unusual today in working life. In the latest edition of Overseas, Elly Earls looks at how the gender leadership gap persists across the Commonwealth, where some countries are making progress and others are falling back. 

Let’s start with the good news. Between 2015, when the Commonwealth’s first Gender Leadership Gap report was published, and this year, the number of women in C-Suite and board positions in the private sector has increased at a rate of nearly 40%.

Examples from across the Commonwealth demonstrate the corporate world’s increasing commitment to creating opportunities for women – from Barclays Botswana’s focus on placing talented women in stretch roles, an initiative borne out of its female managing director’s personal experience, to Vodafone linking bonuses to achieving greater gender balance.

It makes sense – and not just for the sake of basic fairness. If women were to participate in the world of work identically to men, an additional $28 trillion, or 26% of incremental global GDP, could be achieved in 2025, according to McKinsey’s Women Matter research, which found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 21% more likely to have financial returns above the average in their national industry.

Diversity around the corporate decision-making table has also been shown to increase organisations’ performance, as well as improving morale, recruiting, and external image. In the public sector, too, progress – albeit at a less impressive pace – is being made. Between 2015 and 2018, the overall percentage of women in board positions increased from 23% to 25%, which is 5% higher than the 20% of leadership positions currently held by women in the private sector. One of the world’s largest employers, the UK’s NHS, spans both and sets an excellent example for other Commonwealth countries. It has ambitious plans to achieve a 50:50 gender split on all boards by 2020, which will require an additional 500 seats to be held by women, and has set in motion a range of targeted interventions to get there, which were designed based on an in-depth analysis of the trends for women holding board positions across the organisation.

These include a board apprenticeship scheme to create a pipeline of female talent for non-executive roles, and building career development for nursing associates.

Concerning declines

The news from the benchmarking report wasn’t all good, however, with the gender leadership gap remaining stagnant or even widening in many Commonwealth nations.

For instance, ten African countries have experienced a decline in women holding leadership positions in the political sector since 2015, with Uganda showing the largest drop at 34%, followed by Nigeria at 29%.

India experienced an even more dramatic 70% decline in the number of women in the top political jobs and the bigger picture for the political sector isn’t particularly rosy either. While both the private and public sectors saw overall improvements (37.7% and 4.4% respectively), there has been absolutely no change in the number of women in deputy and cabinet positions since 2015.

“The moment you get a change in government, any progress that’s been made in women in leadership at cabinet level can be completely wiped out,” explains Dr Shaheena Janjuha-Jivraj, who led the report, which was commissioned for the Heads of Government Summit 2018. “The really concerning piece is that, at the political level, women in leadership is very partisan driven so it’s not embedded in the infrastructure and systems of the political landscape, irrespective of which party is in power.”

Quotas aren’t guaranteed to improve things either, the report found, with some Commonwealth countries that have had legally enforced quotas in place for a while (India and Botswana in the private sector and Tanzania in the public sector) demonstrating a decrease in women holding leadership positions.

Under the spotlight

The mixed results associated with quotas show that there’s no silver bullet to solve the problem. But shining a spotlight on it – as well as on examples of good practice – is a good place to start.

“When we started the first Gender Leadership Gap report in 2013, only 16 out of the 53 Commonwealth countries had data on women in leadership that was publicly available,” says Janjuha-Jivraj, who is also an associate professor at Henley Business School, and CEO of Boardwalk Leadership, which works with individuals, organisations, and governments to promote diversity and inclusivity for all.

“It’s a big deal that the Commonwealth and then the Cabinet Office have invested in this – something that hadn’t been done before. In itself, it’s a powerful mechanism because it’s shining a light, especially on countries that have previously been quite difficult to engage with.”

Further evidence of the effectiveness of highlighting good, bad, and indifferent practice is the fact that countries that have hosted important Commonwealth events have made the most significant progress on closing the gender leadership gap.

Take Samoa. In 2016, it hosted the 11th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting and, in 2018, it reached the 50% benchmark for women in leadership in the private sector, a target the Commonwealth as a whole wants to reach by 2030.

“There’s an element of feeding the egos of the countries,” Janjuha-Jivraj explains. “Although there’s no political overarching framework that can be imposed on Commonwealth countries, there is a level of competitiveness that kicks in because they see themselves as part of a group and want to be well regarded.

“Countries want to rise up and demonstrate good results rather than being seen to have been left behind. The key thing for the Commonwealth now is to keep the pressure on countries by monitoring and having this data reviewed periodically – every year or every two years.”

Sharing good practice

As an overarching body, the Commonwealth can also help lessforward-thinking countries by facilitating the cross-fertilisation of good ideas, both within and between sectors.

An excellent example of good practice in the political sphere is Rwanda. “The Commonwealth has been really powerful in terms of what they’ve done from grass-roots level,” Janjuha-Jivraj says. “Every Friday, villages legally have to get together to discuss problems that are facing them and the group discussion is chaired by a woman.

“Of course, what happens is that you start building the confidence and capabilities of these women to be voices in the village and ultimately build their leadership skills. So when you look at the leadership representation of women in Rwanda in the political sector, it’s incredibly high because they’ve got an amazing pipeline of women that can then step into leadership roles.”

Crucially, that focus also needs to continue at the upper level so momentum isn’t lost. And it’s here that the private sector tells a good story. “If you look at financial services and telecoms, they’ve all started putting targets in place,” Janjuha-Jivraj says.

“Although we saw the greatest declines in the private sector in certain areas and countries, we also saw the fastest rate of growth, which has shown that where you have the commitment, the plans, and the targets that are driven by sectors, and then by organisations that take responsibility for them, progress can be really powerful.”

Sky, which has set itself an ambitious target – a 50:50 split across the entire business, from entry level right through to senior leadership - is a case in point. The target forces attention on the pipeline of talent in the organisation’s middle management layer, ensuring there is a robust population of female talent available to step up into leadership roles. Since it launched its Women in Leadership initiative a little over two years ago, it has increased the mix of women in its leadership layer from 30% to 40%.

Measuring progress to take concrete action

SheTrades Commonwealth, an International Trade Centre (ITC) initiative, which launched in April and aims to connect a million women to market by 2020, is taking a similar approach.

As well as on-the-ground activities such as intensive training and mentoring for female entrepreneurs in four Commonwealth countries – Nigeria, Ghana, Bangladesh, and Kenya – the programme is setting up SheTrades Global Outlook, a tool designed to help governments measure where they are in terms of fostering women’s integration into the economy. The ITC will also follow up with advisory services to help governments improve.

Vanessa Erogbogbo, the head of the ITC’s women and trade programme, is leading the SheTrades initiative. She says that after only a few months, progress is being made. “In June, we invited 500 companies to the SheTrades Global event in Liverpool, UK. Quite a number of them were from Commonwealth countries,” she says.

“We had a company from Ghana who won an investment of $300,000 into her business and a company from Kenya who secured advisory services from an investment company. Overall, we did $7.5 million in new trade deals for these female entrepreneurs.”

More importantly, though, Erogbogbo is heartened by the increased emphasis organisations like the Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which in December endorsed a collective initiative to increase the participation of women in trade, are placing on female economic empowerment.

“For the first time in the history, the WTO was beginning to talk about gender equality and accept the evidence that when more women-owned firms participate in the economy, GDP growth is faster. The indicators on the SheTrades Global Outlook will provide a way for countries to take concrete action.”


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