Want to Boost Women's Careers? Raise Their Expectations

Business women discussing plans together.
Business women discussing plans together.

One of the advantages of the digital revolution is its immediacy. You read the news together with the readers' reaction; you flick through pictures understanding how people relate to them. It's a much more enriching experience, because it triggers a debate. So we thought we would bring the same approach to statistics. Take women's rights, for example. Every year, authoritative reports track the number of women entering the workforce, their academic qualifications, and their average salaries. But this set of data doesn't tell us the whole story. It doesn't correlate with how women feel, how they fare day-to-day in the workplace, what they see as major obstacles to their career progress. To fill that gap, we decided to join efforts and to ask women directly, across the G20 countries. The findings were very revealing.

A perception poll released today by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation shows that when women see a real possibility for change, they seize it: they find the courage, and are more likely to speak up, demanding -- and often obtaining -- fairer treatment and equal opportunities. On the contrary, where expectations are low, women tend to remain silent, as they perceive inequality as part of the status quo. Overall, the poll highlights a clear gap between perceptions and reality on the ground. And it tells us that if we can raise such expectations through policy and practice, we can accelerate progress.

Consider harassment. One in four women polled say they have experienced some form of harassment while on the job. But in countries where there has been recent debate -- and legal changes -- around the issue, women are more likely to report the abuse. India is perhaps the most striking example. According to our survey, Indian women are now more likely to report harassment than anywhere else in the world. The deadly attack on a female student on a New Delhi bus in 2012 has clearly spurred a nationwide debate, making issues such as rape and consent part of a national conversation, as well as a new law on sexual harassment in the workplace. Comparatively, in Russia and Italy, where such a conversation has not taken place, as few as 7 percent and 13 percent of women respectively say they have reported harassment.

Equal pay is another example of where the perception has translated into progress. Like harassment, four out of ten women said equal pay was a critical issue. But in countries where awareness of the pay gap is high, the status quo is changing: for example, in the United States where court rulings, legislation and the political debate have raised the focus on the issue, the gender pay gap is the top workplace concern for women.

On the contrary, in places where the perception of the pay gap isn't as well recognized, there is less action. For example, twice as many women in Turkey as in the United States expressed confidence that they earn at least the same salary as a man doing the same job. Yet this runs contrary to World Economic Forum (WEF) data showing that Turkey ranks only ahead of India and Saudi Arabia in the G20 in terms of the gender pay gap.

How can we help fill such disconnect? We believe awareness is a good starting point. Which is why the attitudes of Millennials, who show much greater awareness of the challenges and significantly more optimism for progress, is so important. In less than five years, Millennial women will make up an estimated 25 percent of the global workforce, and according to our poll, women below the age of 30 are by far the most confident, even in countries with the most egregious gender disparities. These women believe they can have it all. They want families and don't believe that having children would be detrimental to their career. They are confident they can start their own business and think they have the same stab at success than men.

Youthful naiveté? Not necessarily, especially if we are able to capitalize on this belief and trigger real, generational change. The findings of this poll are a clear call for more investment -- both public and private -- into the education of women and girls. It is encouraging to see that equality in education and lifelong learning are among the Sustainable Development Goals recently adopted by the United Nations. Now, it's our collective duty to make sure these strategic targets go beyond the realm of theoretical policy, and translate into changing perception and concrete action.

Leaders from all sectors and walks of life should urge G20 lawmakers to commit time and resources to reduce the gap in labor force participation by 25 percent in the next decade, the G20's own target. Closing this gap would bring more than 100 million women into the workforce and create more inclusive economies. Let's be clear: this is more than just an issue of gender equality -- it's also about the economy. According to a recent report from McKinsey Global Institute tackling workplace harassment and inequality could boost the global GDP by $12 trillion over the next 10 years.

When women and men are given the same opportunities to make progress through their work society wins as a whole. Let's fill the gap between expectations and reality by showing that workplace equality is both possible and a priority, and ensure that women are fully empowered to press for change and unleash their potential.

Follow Monique Villa on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Monique_Villa