Mixed Messages for Women at Work

Last Updated Mar 8, 2010 2:06 PM EST

It's fitting that International Women's Day should open with news that Kathryn Bigelow has just become the first female to win the best film director Oscar.

Yet today's World Economic Forum's Corporate Gender Gap report 2010 makes her achievement look more like the exception than the rule. The report, which surveys the heads of HR at 600 organisations in 20 countries, claims global leaders are failing to engage talented women at work. Hmmm. Still?

A baseline question simply asks what proportion of the overall workforce is female, and even at this most basic level, companies worldwide haven't made as much progress as you might expect.

The findings show up developed economies badly, too: while companies from the US, Canada and Spain had the highest percentages of female employees at all levels of the workforce, Japan and Austria joined emerging market India at the bottom of the scale.

Likewise, the findings reinforced concerns that "glass walls" still exist in departments and industries, showing a predominance of women in service-related businesses -- financial, professionaland media-- and at middle management, rather than board-level positions. While the majority of HR heads claimed there were "generally no gaps" between men's and women's salaries, only 13 percent tracked and rectified any discrepancies anyway.

But it's not pay, regulation or parental leave that are the biggest barriers for progress anyway. What's most stultifying, it turns out, is a country's culture -- surprising in light of the fact that Austria and Japan score so low on the percentage of women employed.

A masculine or "patriarchal" corporate culture is another obstacle, while a lack of role models and and flexible working options are also complaints.

All of this has "huge economic implications for developed economies", according to the report, which quotes research saying that greater equality could boost US GDP by "as much as nine percent" and eurozone GDP by 13 percent.

The report also again reminds readers of research that links leadership diversity to financial performance and greater innovation. But it doesn't really get to the bottom of the problem.

Saadia Zahidi, head of the Forum's Women Leaders and Gender Parity Programme, claims this year's results are "an alarm bell" for equality at work. But are the findings so very different to those reported by BNETUK last year?

Over at gender consultancy 20-First, CEO Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is more worried about the future prospects for men.

She predicts that "over-feminisation of the education sphere", married to the "continued over-masculinisation of the business world" will only make for more wasted talent all around.

Her advice to women is to stop seeing themselves as a "maligned minority" and "accept the responsibilities of our newfound power". Not sure exactly what that means, but it offers a more positive message than another report into the failings of the workplace talent system.