This year marks a milestone in the journey towards gender equality: it was exactly a century ago that the UK first offered women the right to vote. In the 100 years since, Europe has not only extended the franchise but also – on a broader scale – proven itself a global leader when it comes to advancing women’s rights.
In the business world, however, women remain disempowered individuals. As the chairperson of a Geneva-based bank – Hinduja Bank (Switzerland) Ltd – I have seen the lack of progress up close in the financial sector. While the traditionally conservative banking world has certainly made great leaps in empowering women, still few leadership positions are open to them – particularly in the Swiss market.
According to the World Economic Forum, in fact, Western Europe is only 75% of the way towards closing its “gender gap” (that is, reaching a fully proportional 50/50 split at all levels of the workforce). On its current trajectory, it will take about 61 years to close its gender gap for good. And this is in the world’s best-performing region for gender equality.
Beyond Europe, of course, the challenges for aspirational women only mount. In Asia and the Middle East – home to some of our Bank’s core markets – women remain massively underserved by the sector, many without access to bank accounts and other basic financial services. In these parts of the world, they remain oppressed and cut off from entrepreneurial opportunities.
Looking for the female leaders of tomorrow
I am fortunate to be a woman in a position of influence. So is my sister, Vinoo, who leads the healthcare division of the Hinduja Group – doing inspiring work overseeing the multi award-winning P. D. Hinduja Hospital in Mumbai, which supports the city’s needy. We have been lucky: our forward-thinking father, Mr Srichand Parmanand Hinduja, has been a leading visionary for female empowerment. In his far-sighted wisdom, he raised us to value work, independence and entrepreneurship from a very young age – and for that I am immensely grateful.
But I am conscious that my sister and I remain in the minority. Overall, female business leaders and board members remain few and far between. Despite years of sustained progress in closing the gender gap, only 5.5% of all CEOs of Europe’s top listed companies are female; on average, women do not make up even a quarter of those serving on company boards across the continent. In the UK’s FTSE 100, in fact, there are currently more Davids in charge of firms than women!
Addressing the situation
So, what can be done? We must address the issue on several fronts. First, international organisations such as the United Nations should continue to raise awareness of the need to advance gender equality. Pressing on to achieve the UN’s Fifth Sustainable Development Goal is incredibly important – for both the women already in the workforce, and the ambitious girls seeking to enter it.
Second, the private sector must reach out to directly support women – particularly in those parts of the world where progress is slow. That is why, at the Bank, we are tackling this issue head on. For instance, the board and shareholders have worked closely with Boston Consulting Group to reposition the Bank, so that it actively supports young women’s professional development, empowering them as business entrepreneurs. Backed by a family that places a high value on having women in positions of leadership, the Bank places great emphasis on encouraging their professional development as entrepreneurs – especially in emerging markets.
Families can help, too. In addition to fostering independence and a work ethic in their daughters – just as my father did for me – parents need to encourage their sons’ minds to grow in a positive way, showing them that women have choices and agency. As they grow up and enter the workforce, this will shift the way they see women in general, and will treat their female colleagues better as a result.
Women add value
But perhaps if CEOs, company board members and government ministers around the globe need that extra bit of incentive to drive progress, we should let them know that there is also a strong business case for gender equality. Women able to take advantage of greater business opportunities do not only add to their own pocket, but are also better positioned to support their families and the wider economy. In European countries, achieving full gender parity could add to a country’s annual GDP growth – translating into an extra $250 billion for the UK’s economy, $310 billion for Germany, and $320 billion for France, to name just a few.
They should also remember that women have considerable knowledge and skills to apply to business. Today, in the developed world, those with an “XX” chromosome are now, on average, better educated than those with an “XY”. Over half of university graduates in OECD countries are now women. In the UK, according to universities admissions service UCAS, women are a third more likely to attend higher education than their male counterparts. Our challenge is to help translate this progress from the classroom and lecture theatre into the office.
For me, the issue is highly personal. When working in London, Paris, New York, Geneva or Monaco, I see at first hand why we need more women business leaders and entrepreneurs – and why we need more respect for those that have gained success. Networking and speaking at events and conferences, I see it when people question my wearing a tie – the mark of a man’s world – or when I feel compelled to dress up in a suit to “fit in” around professional men – when I should have the right to wear exactly what I want.
Fortunate enough to be in a position of influence, I strongly believe it is my responsibility to give back, in order to support others’ empowerment and boost their own opportunities. It is why I have recently launched a luxury brand – inspired by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation – which is designed to help support women and girls.
Remarkable progress has been made in the promotion of women’s rights, but the journey to full gender equality is not yet over. We women need to take the initiative and work to boost our own professional status – instead of waiting around for the men to do it for us. Now is the time for the business world to allow women to thrive.