A new report shows how quota systems across Europe have helped heal its yawning gender gap in business. But the continent’s women still occupy very few leadership roles – and tech is no different.
According to Nicoll Curtin, a London-based recruiter, quota laws or guidelines in a raft of European nations have helped close a wide gender gap. Iceland has the largest percentage of female board directors with 48%, narrowly ahead of Norway (42%), Finland (30%) and France (also 30%).
Germany and the U.K. have just 21% female board directors, while other major players disappoint even more: Italy and Spain have just 15%, Turkey just 8% and Malta, which foots the table, has a paltry 2%.
Iceland’s women are also Europe’s third-best-represented among its national parliaments. 41.3% of its 63 seats are filled by women, behind Sweden (43.6%) and Finland (41.5%).
Iceland has a rich vein of feminist and gender equality behind it: in October 1975 women in the country refused to work, cook or look after children, which led in part to the 1976 establishment of the Jafnrettisstofa (Center for Gender Equality). Since 2009 Iceland has ranked first in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.
In contrast Germany, the continent’s largest economy, has just 36.5% of women in parliament, while in Britain only 22.8% of elected candidates are women. Hungary is Europe’s worst performer, with a shade over 10% of its parliament female.
But as much as Scandinavia tops most diversity tables in Europe, the region still has a yawning gender gap when it comes to the top positions: last year the Wall Street Journal reported that of the top 145 Nordic companies, only 3% had female CEOs, a smaller figure, even, than the Fortune 500.
That’s despite a raft of quotas including Norway and Iceland’s insistence that at least 40% of board members be women. In fact none of Norway’s top 32 companies has a female leader, suggesting no correlation between boardroom quotas and company hot seats. None of Finland’s top 27 has a female chief, either. Only 2.4% of Europe’s corporate leaders are women.
“Quotas may be an answer here, as nothing else seems to work, in Iceland and elsewhere,” says Audur Styrkarsdottir, director of Iceland’s Women’s History Archives.
Across the Atlantic the outlook is no better. Only 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In Silicon Valley, 11% of executive positions are taken by women and 9% are executive officers, suggesting that tech is marginally ahead of other industries when it comes to diversity. But a single-digit percentage can hardly be called a success, in an industry that has been repeatedly accused of male bias and ‘brogramming’.
Yet women are still hugely maligned when it comes to major boardrooms. Only 16.9% of Fortune 500 directors’ seats are filled by women. That represents a growth of just 3.3% over the past decade. The Committee for Economic Development (CED) in the U.S. has targeted 30% of seats for women by 2018. With so little progress being made at corporate level, that appears a long way off.
As of January this year there are still, incredibly, 23 Fortune 500 companies with an all-male board of directors (28% have just one female director). Among them Charter Communications; Discovery Communications; Emcor and INTL FCStone can be said to major within the tech industry.
This comes despite a wealth of figures indicating the importance of gender balance in corporations. McKinsey reports that companies in the top quartile in terms of racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more like to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians, and that those in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely.
In the United Kingdom, greater gender diversity on the senior-executive team corresponded to the highest performance uplift in our data set: for every 10% increase in gender diversity, EBIT rose by 3.5%.
A 2012 Atlantic report found that women are the lead adopters of technology, using the Internet 17% more than male counterparts, and head up use of platforms such as Skype, GPS, e-readers and every social network aside from LinkedIn.
“It is generally agreed that organizations whose leadership most accurately reflect the clients they sell to, score higher on a range of measures including ROI, sales and profitability,” says Nicoll Curtin’s Cian Loughnane. “More importantly, the benefits are perhaps best understood in the context of creating meaningful aspirations for female leadership.”
A Catalyst study of 520 organizations over four years found that women outperformed male colleagues across three key areas. They return 42% higher sales; reap 66% higher returns on invested capital and get 52% higher return on equity.
But women are still maligned in business. And tech startups are among the worst offenders. Kalie Moore, of Berlin Startup Girl, says she has experienced “a few egregious examples (of male bias), but most of the time discrimination is more subtle.
“As a woman in tech you will encounter male bias no matter the location of your ecosystem,” she adds. “I’ve spent significantly more time than my male counterparts proving myself before my opinion is recognized.”
Moore points to outfits such as Berlin Geekettes, which aims to further empower women in tech, as evidence the tide is changing – albeit slowly. But, she adds, that change must come from all corners of the business world.
“I’m not a fan of quotas, unless they are absolutely necessary to incite change, but I believe we are at that point,” she says. “More investors should fund startups led by women. Conference organizers need to do a better job of finding female speakers. It is possible.”