Why should we want more women at the top?
Few would argue against having more women at the top of institutions. But if asked why the goal would be desirable, the answer may not be that clear. This lack of comprehension stands in the way of necessary societal progress.
If someone were to ask me why it is important to increase the number of women at the top of institutions, my simple answer would be: “because it is really bad not to”. There is a fundamental problem with a low percentage of women leaders: it points to a broader and much more troubling societal phenomenon than just a lack of diversity at the decision-making table.
I grew up in the Netherlands, a country with not a single woman Prime Minister among the 42 politicians to have held the office since 1848. That is a terrible statistic. Not because the Netherlands cannot be run properly by a male Prime Minister, but because it suggests it is not an equitable country and there is widespread societal gender bias and discrimination. (Spoiler: indeed there is.)
Low numbers of women leaders are like the metaphorical canary in the coal mine: they signal a deep-seated societal phenomenon of a lack of opportunity for women that starts long before they reach the age at which they could take on leadership roles. Scarcity of women at the top in any community indicates that girls have lower chances than boys to succeed and that they are being taught to have different aspirations. It also means that women are more likely to do lower-paying and less prestigious jobs, and therefore reward structures and competitive processes are not equitable.
In most societies with a low percentage of women leaders, the provisions for paid pregnancy leave, affordable childcare, and for breastfeeding at work and in public spaces are suboptimal because they simply are not a policy priority. This further disadvantages women. The lower the percentage of women high earners, bosses and decision makers, the larger the problems for working mothers.
“The lack of women leaders goes beyond fairness: it impedes the stability and the quality of institutions and all of society.”
No country has 100% gender equality, and some are much worse than others. Gender equality is, quite rightly, one of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. A lack of it affects every community, and impacts on all global challenges. It decreases opportunities for women to be economically independent. It increases the chance of women and children living in poverty, of girls not getting the education they deserve, and of violence against women and girls which destabilises all of society.
Higher Education faces similar issues. There’s no reason to think that women academic leaders are better qualified than men to run universities. But the global lack of women university leaders and top-tier professors is concerning — it indicates a lack of women’s representation and participation; a lack of diverse perspectives in decision making; inferior quality across the university core missions; a lack of awareness of particular issues that impact women more than men; and gender bias and discrimination.
A large body of scholarly work confirms this. A few examples: women students are less likely to choose the engineering and technical topics that can lead to better-paying jobs; women are less likely to go up the university career ladder, thereby also depriving students and young colleagues of role models; and women’s perspectives or different needs are often undervalued in the definition and content of research, leading to diminished applicability of research findings. This should worry us all — universities simply cannot be excellent if they neglect the needs of women and if they don’t benefit optimally from women’s contributions to student education, research or societal engagement.
The end goal for women’s participation in leadership teams should be to achieve no less than 50%. The drive to increase the numbers should ideally come from a collective comprehension of the systemic issues that lead to a lack of women’s faces and voices in spaces that matter. Only with that understanding comes the genuine drive to right historic wrongs and to implement comprehensive, evidence-based measures.
“If the culture does not change and there is no understanding of why we need (many) more women at the top, the few who make it will face enormous and unfair challenges.”
A highly strategic approach will also take care of one of the most difficult side effects of unthinkingly increasing the numbers of women in powerful positions: that progress is too incremental and that the few women entering into what have traditionally been male spaces will not have a fair chance to succeed. If the culture does not change and there is no understanding of why we need (many) more women at the top, the few who make it will face enormous and unfair challenges. And if they fail, an unsupportive organisation that recruited a woman for equality tokenism will revert to type and go again for what is perceived to be the safe choice: a man.
The Dutch don’t desperately need a woman prime minister. What they do need is equal numbers of men and women leaders in government, in the judiciary, in business, in universities, in hospitals and in leadership across society. If and when that happens, Dutch girls and women will have more options and will be able to make different life choices. This will vastly increase the likelihood that at least 21 of the next 42 Prime Ministers will be women.
The world deserves equal numbers of women at the top. Not because individual women leaders can make magic happen where men can’t, but because true gender equity across decision-making and leadership roles is the litmus test of whether we are getting it right in society. And most importantly: it is a foundational building block in creating communities where girls and women can have fair opportunities and choices, and equal chances of a fulfilling life. We owe that to all of humanity.