Gender Parity Just Went Into Reverse. Can We Get Back On Course?

The race towards gender parity has hit a depressing low.

The World Economic Forum's (WEF) latest Global Gender Gap Report 2016 estimates that we won't achieve this milestone until the year 2186! The same report in 2014 estimated parity by 2095.

Think about that for a minute. In just two years the forecast for global gender parity has been pushed back 91 years. It is now 170 years away.

It sounds crazy, but by the time we reach that milestone, future politicians will be campaigning to our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren about their expectations for the 23rd century.

This is more than just a setback - it also comes at a bad time. The report is especially disheartening at this point in history where we are seeing massive changes as a result of the disruptive forces of technology. Having women participating in all aspects of society and contributing to decision-making as peers is not just nice to have; instead, it is essential to tackling the 21st century challenges we face.

The Global Gender Gap Report provides annual benchmarks of progress toward parity between men and women in four areas: educational attainment; health and survival; economic opportunity; and political empowerment. In this latest edition, WEF states that progress toward parity in the economic pillar has slowed dramatically with the gap - which stands at 41% globally - now larger than at any point since 2008.

Of course, results vary across the world. The Nordic countries consistently lead as the most gender equal countries, while the United States now sits at number 45 in the country rankings, having dropped 17 places since last year. The report states:

Some regions should expect to see their gender gaps narrow faster than the global rate of change. Among these are South Asia, with a projected closing of the gender gap in 46 years, Western Europe in 61 years, Latin America in 72 years and Sub-Saharan Africa, due to achieve parity in 79 years. Projections for other world regions suggest closing their gaps will take longer than 100 years, namely 129 years in the Middle East and North Africa, 146 years in East Asia and the Pacific, and 149 years in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Given the slow progress over the last decade, the gender gap in North America is expected to close in 158 years.

Imbalances in salaries are a major contributor to the slowdown toward parity. Women around the world earn on average just half of what men earn. There has also been a reduction in women's labor force participation, with the global average for women standing at 54% compared to 81% for men. This comes at a time when women attend university in equal or higher numbers than men in 95 countries. The number of women in senior roles also remains low.

The report speaks for itself and provides great detail on each country's position. While results vary for each country, I believe there are also some prevailing moods around the world that add to the overall narrative:

  • Class divide: We have seen a wave of populist movements take hold across many advanced democracies on all sides of the political spectrum. We live in a time of heightened anxiety driven by stagnating economies, rising inequality and displacement across the developed and developing world. Whether it is Brexit, free trade and globalization, geopolitics, migration or contentious national elections - all of these themes point to a world undergoing transition. There is a lot of fear in many communities and unfortunately, this has increasingly led to the targeting of minorities, refugees, immigrants and women. Whether we like it or not, this reflects and impacts on wider community attitudes and creates new barriers to equality. We urgently need to find a way to re-engage with disconnected and disillusioned people in our societies.
  • Perception divide: In mature market economies, there seems to be an ongoing dissonance between what we say we are committed to, e.g. more women on boards and in leadership - and what we are actually doing, e.g. mostly very limited progress. A recent EY global survey, Navigating disruption without gender diversity? Think again., found that 69% of global industry leaders believe gender parity at the workplace is in reach within 25 years, although only 13% expect to see an increase in women in leadership positions in the next five years. Many cite wider structural issues, such as a lack of women in the talent pipeline as part of the hold up. According to the survey, it helps to look more closely at perceptions around this issue. The study shows that in gender-mixed workplaces, 43% of male business leaders see the biggest barrier to women's careers as a shortage of female candidates available for opportunities that arise, but only 7% of women agree with that assessment. Detailed succession planning and questioning biases in how we assess talent must continue to be a priority.
  • Skills divide: An issue that will very likely exacerbate the growing gender divide is the widening technology skills gap. We know that many of the new jobs created in today's economy are jobs that require technology skills. At a time when businesses are undergoing significant changes as a result of technological disruption, women are deeply underrepresented across STEM industries. The reasons for this are varied but it starts with relatively few young women and girls pursuing computer science in school. Today, just 18% of US computer science college graduates are women. That's down from 37% in 1985 and far behind India, for example, where women account for 40% of computer science graduates. Let's encourage young girls to embrace technology and empower them to pursue technology education and careers. To make technology fields accessible to women, we need to spark girls' imaginations early, encourage young women to pursue their passions via technology and empower graduates to turn ideas into careers.

The road to achieving gender parity is a journey that we are all on together. After WEF's Global Gender Gap Report 2014, we created a new initiative at EY: Women. Fast forward. The program starts from the premise that diversity and inclusiveness are core values for us as they are for many multinational organizations.

Our people are everywhere in the world. While part of EY, they also go home to their families and friends and they are active in their local communities. I have seen the profound effect a multinational workplace can have in building communities, engaging people in finding out about each other and fostering positive attitudes toward people who come from backgrounds different to one's own. Women. Fast forward builds on this experience and aims to accelerate the pace of achieving gender parity and diversity in our workplaces, and also in our wider societies.

Despite WEF's latest gender gap report and prevailing attitudes, I see encouraging signs that show the trend can be reversed at EY, similar organizations and select parts of the world. One such recent example came from Australia where nearly half of the top 200 listed companies appointed women to their executive boards for the first time ever this year. More countries in the G20 in the last year have elected women to leadership positions and are advancing women in the civil service every day. And here at EY we continue to make strides promoting women into our partnership every year.

Sometimes it is the seemingly small changes that make the biggest difference - encouraging girls into STEM, supporting a young woman's career choice, actively promoting women into leadership roles, supporting women entrepreneurs, creating opportunities to start businesses - and most importantly, recognizing every day that talent and capability come in many forms and do not always look, sound or act the same. Embracing diversity of all kinds is nothing if not an asset to any organization and society. Let's work together to accelerate gender parity within our lifetime - and make sure the numbers never go backward again.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.