Beate Trankmann, Resident Representative of UNDP China
at “Board Diversity – Women on Board” Themed Forum Session
of the 4th China (Shenzhen) Corporate Governance High-level Forum
Mr. He Jie, Director of the Shenzhen Municipal Financial Regulatory Bureau,
Ms. Liao Xiaosha, Chairman of Shenzhen Women’s Chamber of Commerce,
Mr. Wang Ji, Chairman of the Shenzhen Research Association of Corporate Governance,
As the saying goes: “ 妇女能顶半边天” (Women hold up half the sky). Women play critical roles in our society – from essential workers, to entrepreneurs, caretakers, engineers and more.
But I’m not here to talk about why women are valuable. You already know that. For example, firms that include female leaders are more profitable than those lead by men alone. Or that businesses with women on boards have higher Environmental Social Governance scores, making them more likely to address risks like climate change.
So I’m here to talk about how we get more women on boards.
First, we must face the facts: across the world, women are not getting equal opportunities to work, let alone lead. In China, 61.5% of women were in the workforce in 2017, compared to 76.1% of men. They also hold only a quarter of executive positions across China’s firms – roughly equaling women on S&P 500 boards.
So why are fewer women working, and fewer making it to the top? The answer lies in a lack of equality at work and at home. While women are often as educated and qualified as their male colleagues, many drop out halfway through their careers, too stretched by family responsibilities – and lack supporting infrastructure to balance both.
If a company board represents a glass ceiling, then we must not only help women break through it, but actually reach it in the first place. This calls for nurturing a big enough pool of women for leadership roles – and helping them grow their careers after having children.
The workplace has been structured around men: they, not women, are the norm. For example, imposing fixed working hours and an institutional culture where work is measured by time spent in the office – presentism – rather than productivity. A typical ‘9 to 5’ day does not allow for collecting children from school, or buying groceries, for example, which disproportionately affects women, who are often primarily responsible for family matters.
In this sense, inequalities at work are compounded by inequalities beyond it. Official data shows in 2018, China’s women spent three times longer on housework than men. This divide worsened during the pandemic: in 2020, Boston Consulting Group found women globally now spend 15 more hours a week on domestic work and childcare than men. As a result, many now feel the need to reduce their working hours, or leave work completely.
While Chinese women are legally entitled to 98 days paid maternity leave, around one third of private sector female employees took fewer than 90. In Sweden, by contrast, parents receive 480 days of paid parental leave at about 80% of their salary, which they share — with dads taking at least three of the 16 months. This helps women to combine careers with family and thus expands the pool of female talent for leadership positions. The Swedish government expects to reach gender parity across public company boards by 2025.
Further complicating the ability of women to balance family with work in many countries is the shortage of childcare. In 2016, childcare enrolment in China for 0-3-year olds was less than 10% - one third the OECD average. As a result, a third of mothers surveyed quit their jobs due to childcare needs. Yet: three-quarters said they would return, if childcare were available.
We need everyone to step up for equality at home and work, to enable more women to lead. From policymakers: we need laws that end discrimination and inequality at work. For example, increasing the 14-days paternity leave, so more men can take on childcare. Also, investing more in childcare services.
Additionally, due to the shortage of childcare, flexible working arrangements are even more critical to retaining women. This includes structuring the working day around the family, not the other way around.
Bank of America, for example, offers flexible work arrangements and backup childcare, helping to make it one of the most gender equal companies in 2019. And its profits that year also exceeded expectations. Following COVID-19, many more companies globally and in China are also realising the benefits of flexibility, such as working from home, to boost their productivity.
Further, we need political will. Adopting legal gender quotas for leadership roles can play a key role in getting more women onto boards and allowing them to catch up. Because when equality is enforced, a faster shift takes place than when we wait for habits to change.
The UN is a case in point. The Secretary General committed to gender parity in leadership positions in the UN. UNDP has embraced quotas, with gender equality a key performance indicator for senior management. As of this year, UNDP’s global senior management team consists of 63% female Assistant Secretary Generals up from 27% in 2017! And 50% of all Resident Representatives leading UNDP’s Country Offices are women. UNDP also applies inclusive hiring practices. For example, at least one female candidate should be shortlisted for a position, while interviewers must also include women. We also offer flexible work, allowing many of our teams to work from home, long before COVID-19.
Since 2009, we’ve also worked on a Gender Equality Seal for Enterprises, helping businesses consider gender across their governance, benefitting more than 400 companies globally. This encourages companies to end disincentives to women, like gender pay gaps. In 2018 for example, Chinese women earned just 64% of the salary of men for similar work. Our Gender Equality Seal criteria also include whether companies offer a healthy work-life balance and flexible working arrangements, which particularly help women to cater to their dual roles. From wages, to recruitment, promotion, training and leave - businesses must enforce equality, so everyone can realise their potential.
Finally, we need a new perspective from everyone. By taking on more responsibilities at home, men can make a powerful contribution to equality at work – and even change society by allowing women to keep working, too. This is reflected in the UN’s HeForShe Campaign, calling on all men to step up and speak out for women.
Equality is not an option: it is not only a right; it also makes business sense. And it is in everyone’s interests. Because we cannot exclude half the world if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals – to end poverty, reduce inequality and protect our planet. Our shared future is only secure if women have the choice to work and lead.
I thank today’s organiser’s for doing their part towards this. Together, I believe we can end inequality as we recover from the pandemic. With the right support and opportunities, women can hold up half the sky in every board room!