Women in the boardroom: is the glass ceiling broken?

boardroom; gender diversity

As part of the International Women’s Day 2021 celebrations, I attended the Chartered Governance Institute’s discussion on gender equality and representation of women in some of the highest echelons of business, following their publishing of a report on the topic. The panel featured speakers from around the globe and tackled a variety of issues surrounding gender diversity, women in business and whether the glass ceiling has truly been broken.

So has the glass ceiling been broken? The answer from this discussion – yes and no. Whilst there does seem to be increasing enthusiasm for improving the number of women in powerful positions, Angus Dawson, the Managing Partner of a management consulting company based in Australasia, suggested that the approach companies take should be improved. He suggested we should be looking at gender diversity as you would health and safety, in that it should be an absolute essential rather than a bonus, and something which is always being improved and adapted. He also stressed the importance of women’s experiences in the workplace being heard so that the environment can be more welcoming to women looking to move up the ranks, and how we can reframe targets as motivation rather than an end goal, suggesting that there is a danger to feeling that once a target is met, your work is done. 

Suzyo Ng’andu, Board Secretary at the Zambia Revenue Authority, spoke about the difficulties of increasing women’s representation in Southern Africa. It is interesting to note that in Southern Africa the focus on racial diversity has preceded gender diversity (in contrast to much of the West) and hence there is already a successful template of how diversity issues can be tackled. Yet, Ms. Ng’andu emphasised the challenges of trying to reverse the deep-rooted impacts of patriarchal society on women’s confidence in high-power positions and knowing how to assert themselves in a business setting. She mentioned the successes of classes offered to young women to develop confidence and leadership skills before entering the job market, which also have the potential to work brilliantly on a global scale.

Edith Shih, Executive Director and Company Secretary of the multinational conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings, shared the unique experience of trying to increase gender diversity in Hong Kong. She said that although the dominance of family-owned conglomerates in East Asia can make diversity initiatives more difficult, the more pressing issue in her opinion is the fact that the majority of women are awarded positions on boards after they have retired and are proven experts in their area, giving young women few opportunities to progress. She also warned of a small number of women being appointed to multiple boards to give the impression of increased diversity where little effort has really been made. Echoing Suzyo Ng’andu’s comments, she further highlighted the importance of nurturing young female talent in business and encouraging them to recognise their value and to be confident in situations where they may feel out of place.

As the push for more female representation in the UK moves past its initial phases, it’s an important point in time for us to take stock of our progress and develop existing initiatives to be as successful as possible for the future. Discussions such as this one are vital to continuing the struggle for true gender equality in the workplace, so a huge thank you to CGI for hosting this event.

Ella Neve Wilton is a SOAS Junior Digital Ambassador, currently studying BA International Relations and Korean.

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