International Woman's Day was ushered in triumphantly as Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. The corporate world managed to take the shine off the success as the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report criticising businesses around the world for failing to close the gender gap.
This came as the Prime Minister said it was "unacceptable" that there were UK firms without any female board representation and added that if nothing changed "we will need to consider taking more serious action". The WEF yesterday released its Corporate Gender Gap Report, a study into some of the world's largest companies, which found that many had failed to address equal pay and were losing female talent.
Saadia Zahidi, one of the report's authors and the head of the WEF's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, said it sounded an "alarm bell" that companies were not doing enough to combat inequality. "While a certain set of companies in Scandinavia, the US and the UK are indeed leaders in integrating women, the idea that most corporations have become gender-balanced or women-friendly is still a myth," she said.
At 52 per cent, the US has the highest percentage of women employees at all levels, followed by Spain at 48 per cent and Canada at 46 per cent. While India is making progress with equality in its parliament – a third of seats will be reserved for women under a proposed law – women only account for 23 per cent of the workforce. It is closely followed by Japan at 1 percentage point higher.
The UK came in seventh place with women employees making up just under 40 per cent of the workforce. Ruth Sealy, deputy director of the International Centre for Women Leaders, said: "Corporate UK is losing out on intellectual capital. The issue needs to be addressed at every level. To pave the way for more senior women, you have to make sure you don't lose them further down."
Women employees tend to be concentrated in entry- or middle-level positions "and remain scarce in senior management or board positions in most countries and industries" the WEF survey also found. The biggest exception was Norway, where the level of women on the board of directors was above 40 per cent for the majority of respondents, because of government regulations.
Ms Sealy worked on research published in November that found that only 12.2 per cent of FTSE 100 board members were women. "There is a groundswell of opinion that we're getting to the point where it won't sort itself out," she said. "Nobody likes the idea of quotas, as it isn't meritocratic. Yet meritocracy only works with a level playing field. It isn't level in the UK."
Gordon Brown said yesterday: "When more than half of graduates are women, it is completely unacceptable that some of our top 100 public companies have not a single woman on their boards."
Of the 600 companies surveyed by the WEF across 20 countries, fewer than 5 per cent had women chief executives. The top was Finland with 13 per cent in the sample taken. In the UK, the few women chief executives include Dame Marjorie Scardino, the head of publishing company Pearson, Kate Swann at WH Smith, Sly Bailey at Trinity Mirror and Dorothy Thompson at Drax, while Cynthia Carroll is chief executive of London-listed Anglo American. In the US, Irene Rosenfeld is head of Kraft, the food giant that bought Cadbury, and Indra Nooyi is the chairman and chief executive of Pepsi.
Yet, the WEF report said there were simply not enough women executives. It added that barriers to women in top jobs included a "lack of role models". Others included the "general norms and cultural practices" and "masculine or patriarchal corporate culture".
Ms Sealy said there had been "no improvement in the pay gap" with an average 18 per cent difference between men and women. She said that for more senior roles the difference became more stark, rising potentially to 40 per cent. The WEF said that in spite of the pay gaps, 72 per cent of the companies surveyed did not even track the differences.
Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the forum, said: "Despite evidence regarding the importance of women's economic integration and even as the global economy's dependence on knowledge industries and knowledge workers grows, country-level data show us clearly that there are still discrepancies between the job opportunities and wages available to women and those of their male counterparts."