Reflecting Global Change for Women in Business and Management

Deborah France Massin, Director, Bureau for Employers’ Activities – ILO

Earlier this year, the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities launched its report on Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum.

Its main messages are perhaps well known and hopefully accepted: women’s presence in the labour market is increasingly significant for economic growth and development and women represent an incredible talent pool which should not be ignored.

The good news is that a greater percentage of women earn their own income than in the past and work in a broader range of occupations.

Women are swelling the ranks of lower and middle managers in many regions, in some cases occupying more than 50% of all jobs. More and more, they’re also joining the ranks of entrepreneurs and are running their own businesses. Around 30% of businesses are now run by women.

However, even though there are more women leaders in business, statistically speaking the proportion of women CEOs and board members is still much lower than their participation in the labour market overall and in management generally. It’s especially low at big companies. Just 5 per cent of publicly traded firms have a woman at the helm.

Our report showed that while the glass ceiling may be cracked, it’s still far from broken.

Key takeaways

One of the tangible objectives of the report is to provide a solid research background to help deepen our knowledge about the good practices, resources, organisational structures and networks already in place in the business community.

A recent example is a conference held last month entitled “Reflecting Global Change for Women in Business and Management”.

Held in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation and the Confederation of British Industry at its headquarters in London, the meeting was a milestone. For the first time, it brought constituents from businesses and their representative organisations together with experts and practitioners from around the world to discuss the challenges and critical steps to advancing women in leadership positions and levelling the playing field for women and men.

It’s generally recognised that some of the main obstacles holding women back are gender stereotypes, corporate cultures, difficulties in reconciling work and family responsibilities as well as more subtle forms of gender biases which sometimes exist in educational systems and the workplace.

At the London conference many of these issues were discussed in a dynamic and open way. We tackled questions like: why after so many decades have women not broken through the glass ceiling in significant numbers? Do employers tend to hire people that are similar to themselves?

What role does gender stereotyping play? What measures work (or don’t) to overcome institutional barriers blocking women’s access to top positions in companies? How can companies have more gender balance in their decision-making structures? How can corporate cultures be changed to be more inclusive of women?

The panellists and speakers – who included senior managers from Deutsche Post DHL, Ernst and Young, IBM Korea, McKinsey and Company, Sodexo, Shell, Silicon Manufacturing Company, Unilever and Business Unity South Africa, as well as a former mayor of London – had interesting stories to tell. The graphics “scribed” during the panel sessions give you a flavour of the discussions.

What the companies there all had in common is that they are committed to promoting women in their ranks, and have taken important steps to achieve this.


An illustrator at the meeting captured some of the key themes from the discussions in this graphic, called a “scribe”. Explore the full-size image (8MB)

The way forward

So what’s next? Going forward, we want to move beyond meetings and harness our employer constituents’ wealth of knowledge to provide a springboard for renewed ILO action.

At a practical level, we will build on the inputs to the report and the London conference to bring together more examples of good practices which can be used by national employer organizations and their member companies seeking to make progress.

We will also continue working with national employer and business organisations which have a key role to play in creating greater awareness among their company members about the talent and resources women can bring to the workforce, especially at senior decision-making levels.

For example, a follow up to London will be hosted by the Singapore Employers’ Federation in July. We will also look at initiatives business-representative organisations have taken to increase the percentage of women in their decision making structures.

All this work will go a long way to enhancing our own knowledge of business priorities in order to make a real contribution to the ILO’s Centenary Women at Work initiative.

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