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Evidence is growing that gender equity is not just politically correct window-dressing, but good business. Companies are trying to increase the number of women in executive positions, yet many are struggling to do so because of a failure to adapt workplace conditions in a way that ensures qualified women do not drop off the corporate ladder, surveys show.

The case for companies to act is compelling.

In a survey last year of 366 companies, consultancy McKinsey & Co. found that those whose leadership roles were most balanced between men and women were more likely to report financial returns above their national industry median.

Companies with more balanced leadership do a better job recruiting and retaining talented workers, reducing the costs associated with replacing top executives, McKinsey found. They also have stronger customer relations because management better reflects the diversity of society, and they tend to make better business decisions because a wider array of viewpoints is considered.

Board quotas alone will not close the gender gap because they only address the final step in the career ladder, researchers say. The real challenge for employers is to hire, train and promote talented women so they have a pipeline of qualified female candidates when they need to fill senior roles.

“We’re on the cusp of a revolution,” says Cary Cooper, a professor at Lancaster University Management School in Britain. “If organizations don’t allow more flexibility, more autonomy, they’re just going to keep losing (women).”

The report suggests employers need to move beyond the idea that “family-friendly” policies such as flexible working hours are enough. This means re-examining “unspoken but powerful perceptions” such as the assumption that women are riskier hires because they are more likely to give up their careers for parenthood. Women also have a role to play in ensuring that their spouses are “real partners” in sharing household and child-care responsibilities, the authors say.

 

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