Gender Equality in Decision Making Positions

    Socio-economy & New Tech


14mins | Article

During a webinar held on March 9th, 2021, our panel assessed the progress that has been made towards achieving gender equality in decision-making positions across both business and the government, the issues and opportunities that have emerged from the Covid-19 crisis, and how they redefine the roles of all stakeholders.

The webinar was held in the context of the launch of the AXA-Bocconi Research Lab on Gender Equality and gathered the following panelists: Prof. Anne Boring, Women in Business Chair at Sciences Po, co-funded by the AXA Research Fund; Georges Desvaux, Chief Strategy & Business Development Officer of the AXA Group; Prof. Paola Profeta, Associate Professor of Public Economics at Bocconi University, leader of the AXA Research Lab on Gender Equality; Monika Queisser, Head of Social Policy at the OECD. It was moderated by Francesca Donner, Gender Director and Editor at The New York Times.


Watch the video of the webinar (1 h) or read the testimonials extracted from the discussions below.

Gender Equality in Decision Making Positions

The testimonials below were edited or shortened for the sake of brevity.

The year 2020 was marked by a global pandemic that led to loss of lives and loss of income, as the professional sphere became narrower while the domestic sphere became unsustainably broad for many. The ensuing childcare crisis has left mostly mothers to pick up the pieces as unpaid labor, already a burden for more women than men, has taken center stage. But without good solutions, many women may have stunted careers that will never get back on track. These issues existed long before Covid-19 hit, but the pandemic has thrown them into sharp relief, and may also provide an opportunity to address longstanding issues ranging from the role of unpaid labor in economic prosperity to the need for paternity leave and boardroom quotas, not to mention the economic rationale for gender equality and diversity.

Is it true that the Covid-19 pandemic has driven women out of the labor market in far greater numbers than men?

Monica Queisser: Some have called this a “she-cession,” drawing a contrast to the last financial crisis, where initially mostly men lost jobs in manufacturing and women joined the labor force to boost household income and compensate for male job losses. Economists thought more women's jobs would be lost this time because service sectors, like retail and hospitality, were shut down. But in many sectors where we thought there were more women, this turns out not to be true. In the food and beverage industry, for example, about 53 percent of the global workforce is female. In retail it's over 60 percent, far lower than very feminine sectors like long-term care, which is 90 percent female, or the global health workforce, which is 70 percent female. Jobs were added in the health sector. In OECD countries, on average, we haven’t seen a massive impact on women as opposed to men, though there may be a stronger temporary impact on women in some countries. New data from Italy show a high percentage of female job losses.

Paola Profeta: In Italy, many of the jobs lost have been women's jobs. In December 2020, a massive reduction in female jobs was noted: 99 percent of the job losses were women and the female employment rate decreased in 2020 to 48.6 percent, which is low for Italy – the lowest reading in a decade. It suggests that women have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Also, the pandemic increased the amount of work at the family level – housework and childcare – and not just in Italy. The fact that schools closed for an extended period increased the amount of work that families had to do because their children were home. This additional workload has fallen on women more than on men because of the asymmetric division of labor within the family.

Should governments start paying for unpaid labor?

MQ: The international Commission on the Status of Women has discussed this issue for many years. The OECD is currently in the process of valuing unpaid work. Conceptually, it's difficult to determine what values to place on unpaid labor. Is it the price one would pay for childcare or housecleaning? Should we use the opportunity cost in some case, for example if a highly paid manager stays home to care for children? Should she be paid her hourly rate when valuing her work in the home? Are we at the point where governments will start paying people for unpaid work? That’s a stretch, but one thing we can all do is use the concept of the value of our unpaid work when we negotiate with our partners, our children, and our families. It is humiliating for women who do all this unpaid work that is not adequately recognized, exacerbated by the Covid crisis.

Anne Boring: The issue of unpaid labor is related to that of low paid labor, and this crisis has intensified the debate about the appropriate wage for workers, such as nurses, who provide essential care. They are being paid for their work, but these jobs remain extremely undervalued. It is disheartening to observe that, despite the discussions and despite the applause for essential workers at the beginning of the crisis, not much has happened in terms of increasing pay for these workers. It is important to negotiate within families on the division of household labor, but during Covid, when couples couldn’t outsource services like childcare and had to find the time to provide care for their children, it was women who stepped up. The number of hours of childcare taken up by men has increased but, in terms of their share of work in the household, the situation remains very unbalanced. Families need to negotiate but there are also strong policy implications for governments and unfortunately, despite a lot of talk, I don't see much action.

Are perceptions of unpaid labor changing?

PP: Surveys show that men prefer childcare to domestic work but also that sharing domestic work is crucial for maternal employment and the fertility rate. We interviewed the same couples twice, both before and after pandemic. We asked these couples, who already had one child, how they share domestic work and childcare. In the first survey, they tended to share housework more than childcare. When we interviewed them again three years later, we found that a more balanced sharing of these responsibilities led to a higher probability of having a second child and the mother maintaining full-time work. What is particularly relevant here is that what happens within the family is reflected in the labor market. The family is where gender differences begin and then we see them in the labor market.

Is there a role for employers to play? What about corporate leadership?

Georges Desvaux: Yes. AXA’s 160,000 employees have been working remotely for a year, and we understand the importance of helping people working remotely manage their work-life balance. Before Covid, people went to the office and then went home to their personal space, but that boundary doesn't exist anymore. We are trying to help our employees set healthy boundaries. We have also offered resilience training to help individuals – men and women – because it all collides in the same sphere. It’s been a stressful year for everyone but it's an immense learning experience. At AXA, we got a head start on moving to “smart working” and we want to make this flexibility available to everyone. A large part of leadership is role modeling, showing people that everyone has a life. Thomas Buberl, our CEO, has talked about what he has learned working from home. The second element of leadership is that, as we move to more remote relationships, leadership becomes much more about empathy, about the ability to connect to create relationships beyond the task at hand, and this is a radically different leadership model. 

Why have traditional gender norms – the belief that women belong at home and men should work – become more deeply entrenched post-COVID?

AB: In one survey, we asked women to estimate the share of work they do on domestic tasks; they said about two-thirds. When men were asked, they said they do just under half. When we asked respondents about their beliefs in gender equality norms using questions from the European value study, we found that during the first lockdown in France respondents tended to agree more often with statements affirming unequal gender norms than in 2018. We hypothesized that when couples are not able to externalize services such as childcare and must do them at home, putting a time use constraint on couples, they might be more inclined to believe in more unequal gender norms. In France, people tend to be very gender equal in their beliefs, much more so than in countries like Italy, but nonetheless we saw a slight reversal of the trend, from both men and women. Women tended to have a mother's guilt effect when they were extremely time constrained because they were still working from home while taking care of their kids, who were also at home, and it became too much. This increase in the mental load led them to say that maybe children suffer when women work. Men with less education or lower incomes tended to agree more often with statements that affirm unequal gender norms. This is consistent with a conservative shift hypothesis, which is that when individuals are in a situation of economic uncertainty, it can lead them to fall back on more traditional and more conservative beliefs.

What about paternity leave?

MQ: Parental leave can help influence people's decisions on sharing work and family responsibilities, in particular childcare responsibilities after the birth of a child. Nordic countries and Iceland have led in reserving large parts of parental leave for fathers. If it doesn’t matter to an employer whether it hires a young man or a young woman because either of them will be taking six months of parental leave, then we will see a big change not only in the household share of work but also in the way employers view young women, making parental leave a powerful tool. But parental leave alone is not enough: it needs to be long; it needs to be mandatorily shared between men and women; and it needs to be paid, because if nobody can afford to take it that defeats the purpose.

PP: It’s important to have mandatory paternity leave for fathers right after the birth of the child. Typically, it’s much shorter than parental leave, but it is highly relevant. If the father must stay home from work when a child is born, this means not only sharing responsibilities with the mother but also signals that the employer understands fathers can stay home too. This will help change gender norms, not only with respect to society but also in business, where the prevalent belief is that fathers who stay home with their children are not committed to their work. If everybody stays home following the birth of a child, then norms will change.

MQ: The two OECD countries with the most and longest leave are Japan and Korea, yet fathers there are very reluctant to take it. This suggests that it is necessary but not sufficient to have the right government policy in place. We also need companies to show that they expect the fathers to take this leave to destigmatize the practice of paternal leave. In very conservative societies, the policy in not enough to change the social norms around it.

What's the private sector's role in shaking things up?

GD: At the end of the day, policies are policies, and the government needs to be thoughtful about this. It's terrific when you have the right policies but if companies don't help the change process along, it won't happen. You must translate policies into your own company policies and then make it acceptable including to leadership – walking the talk, role modeling, making it applicable.

AB: There are three ways that firms generate change. They need incentives to invest the time and effort and the costs to generate change in corporate culture and how they foster gender equality. The first is government policy, and quota laws tend to work only when they have an enforcement mechanism. Soft quotas tend not to work. The second force shaping corporate behavior is investment firms asking companies to embrace gender diversity and diversity in general. This is a strong incentive for companies that want financial support. The third incentive is young graduates – especially young male graduates – who care about work-life balance. By offering a better work life balance, companies can attract top talent. Without these mechanisms, companies don’t move much.

How are we going to bring more women into the room to leadership to the boardroom? Does it need to be mandated, penalized, or subject to quotas?

PP: Gender-balanced leadership is beneficial for several reasons. First, because women are 50 percent of the population and are more educated than men right now in many developed countries. They have the right competences and talents. Excluding half the population from decision-making positions is a waste of talent resources and it's not efficient.  Second, gender-balanced leadership does not mean replacing men with women. It’s simply good strategy because men and women have complementary traits and perspectives: diversity adds value. Third, gender-balanced leadership means finally addressing issues and policies that promote gender equality. Gender-balanced leadership is one of the drivers of more open discussions about policies and measures at the firm or policy-making level that benefit gender equality. I have conducted many studies on quotas, and the general finding is that they have been beneficial. It’s difficult to find causal effects on performance and profits, but it's common knowledge that they increase the quality and the competence of boards.  On male-dominated boards, the main selection criteria were not only meritocratic.  Including women forced boards to look more carefully at the composition of their members and new women entering are better qualified than the older men exiting.  Many people say quotas are anti-meritocratic because people are chosen for belonging to a certain group and not for their merits, but this is not what has happened. Overall quality has increased. The soft quotas Anne mentioned are recommendations that lack strong enforcement.  Quotas are a shock policy designed to change an inefficient equilibrium. In an ideal world we don't need quotas, but we need them now because otherwise the process will not naturally evolve towards equality.

GD: Fear of quotas is a fantastic way to make people move. At AXA, when we are appointing a new senior executive, we make sure there’s a pipeline of women as well as men to consider. We have progressed rapidly over the last two or three years, but we remain far from where we should be, and quotas can help us get there.

AB: There is not as much trickle-down effect as we hoped for implementing gender quotas on boards. Now the question is should gender quotas be implemented at other levels, especially the c-suite, and it will be interesting to see which countries implement them and what the effects are. This is likely to have a stronger role model effect on women who are lower down in the hierarchy, knowing that if they make the effort and develop a career strategy, they have a good chance of moving up the ranks.  

Is the move to the digital space the great equalizer or has it placed women at a greater disadvantage?

PP: There are risks and opportunities. The risk is if we return to normal post-pandemic and women are the only ones who continue working remotely. The opportunity is that we will use this new flexibility to improve gender equality because household responsibilities are better shared. Flexible work arrangements can increase men’s share of housework by up to 50 percent. If flexibility benefits both men and women, then this is good.

GD: I think flexible working, or smart working, is an opportunity that will benefit both men and women. I also think leadership capabilities will be more focused on how you lead people through and not about what they do every day as you supervise them. It’s about trust and empowering people to do things, and women seem to be more comfortable with this. There is a massive capacity for women as leaders and as colleagues to flourish in this environment.

MQ: We must worry about a different divide, not only the gender divide. Some people have relatively comfortable living arrangements and space, maybe even a dedicated workspace. But not everybody does, and we must introduce more equality along socioeconomic and other lines: we know the world of work is in unequal and risks being more unequal in the future. It's great that women and men who are not in leadership positions, or who don’t do the type of work we do, have also been working from home. We are seeing that almost everybody can do it and that's positive. It’s good news for removing other inequalities from the world of work.

AB: The quality of the space you have is important. Do you have a room of your own so you can focus on your work? A study by a French demographic institute shows that women, even high-end executive women, are less likely to have a space where they can work quietly and that being slowed down in your ability to focus can have long-term consequences on career trajectories. There are still challenges ahead, but many people have experienced some aspects of remote work positively and it will be interesting to see how firms adapt.

This webinar is part of The AXA Research Fund Expert Series, which brings together experts in academia, business, and public policy to discuss key risks in health, the environment, and the economy to promote informed decision-making.

11 March 2021