Rallying cry: companies are under pressure to equalise pay and create a more welcoming work environment © Owen Franken - Corbis via Getty Images
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It is almost a decade since researchers from investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and consultancies such as BCG concluded that women would drive the post-financial crisis global economy. Representing the majority of the world’s growth in new income over the next several years, women would reshape global economics and politics, they said.

The conclusions look well founded: women today control $20tn, or 27 per cent, of the world’s wealth, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, a New York-based think-tank. If you count how many purchasing decisions for which women are responsible, and how much their priorities determine household finances, their influence is even more substantial. There are any number of other measures of female economic success over the past decade, such as the shrinking gaps between men and women in education and income.

Yet there are signs everywhere that female talent, power and opportunity are underused. During the past few months, reaction to the widespread sexual harassment that still exists in the workplace found voice in the #MeToo movement. Companies of all kinds — especially in sectors such as technology, the media and finance — are under pressure to equalise pay and create a more welcoming work environment.

Globally, there is a shortage of female talent at the top, the result of longstanding obstacles for women trying to reach senior-level jobs. Meanwhile, the problem of negligible economic growth in many nations highlights that growth is people plus productivity. If we — business, society, policymakers — do not figure out a way to utilise women’s talents better at a high level in all economies, wellbeing for everyone will suffer.

Where do we go from here? Already, this has been a watershed year in terms of putting women’s equality and em­powerment on the boardroom agenda. “For the first time in my career, there’s been a really straightforward discussion of the issues that most women face at some point,” says Karen Harris, managing director of the macro­economic trends group at Bain, the consultancy.

While Ms Harris has never experienced difficulties at her employer, she has, like almost every woman, faced them in the course of her work. She re­calls leaving an airport business lounge after being pestered by another traveller. The staff declined to make him leave. “I remember thinking: ‘Why am I the one having to prowl around in this airport for a place to work in the middle of the night because I don’t feel comfortable?’ ”

The solution to such questions — and any number of more or less serious problems of gender — appears to be greater diversity at work. A wide body of research shows that greater gender diversity not only fosters better economic outcomes, but also changes the culture. When women are in positions of corporate power, it is less likely other women will be harassed or intimidated.

Yet, according to McKinsey, the consultancy, women re­main significantly absent from the pipeline of potential corporate leaders: fewer are hired at entry level, even though in the US, for example, they represent 57 per cent of recent college graduates. Only one in five C-suite leaders globally is a woman.

The conversations of the past year shed light on some of the reasons. One key but underexplored reason for the persistent “glass ceiling” may be that women are choosing not to break it; instead, they want a workplace that is radically more flexible, challenging and rewarding than currently offered. It is perhaps no accident that many successful women leave large corporations to start a disproportionate share of new businesses, or eschew top management jobs for well-paid consulting gigs.

The corporate world is still mostly designed for a man with a stay-at-home spouse: the hours are long, and few senior corporate jobs come with the flexibility to blend work and family in a way that most women even at the highest levels say is crucial.

Yet that challenge can also create opportunity, in the sense that it breeds entrepreneurial women with diverse CVs — exactly what corporations of all kinds are looking for these days. Technological change means businesses need to think innovatively. That calls for a lot more cognitive diversity as well as variety of experience.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, formerly a vice-president at bond trader Pimco, left finance to pursue her love of foreign affairs, which led to a position as a senior fellow studying women’s issues for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and writing The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, a bestseller about female entrepreneurship in Afghanistan.

Recently, that unusual CV won her a position as chief marketing officer for Shield AI, which develops security and defence products that use artificial intelligence. “They liked that I had an unconventional background,” she says. “I was thinking about the areas they think about, but in a different way.” For Ms Lemmon, a less conventional path to the top was about “controlling both my time, but also my career path”.

Having that kind of control resonates with millennials, who have grown up in an era when diversity, the gig economy and the desire for a work-life balance are the norm. Given that they are the new generation of workers and consumers, it is a topic companies will need to think about much more, too.

Top champions of women’s careers

The Financial Times and HERoes, a gender-equality initiative, are launching a second series of annual role model lists showcasing champions of women in business. We are looking for both female and male executives who have led the way in bringing about important changes in women’s careers in the UK and globally.

We also aim to find the talent of tomorrow — female future leaders working to develop the talent pipeline for women, while achieving professional success themselves. To nominate a champion, visit www.out-standing.org/heroes/ by May 4.

There are three list categories in the FT/ HERoes Champions of Women in Business 2018: 100 female executives; 50 male executives; and 50 female future leaders.

Submissions will be judged by a panel including Mellody Hobson, president, Ariel Investments; Mark Wilson, Aviva group chief executive; Gigi Chao, vice-chairman, Cheuk Nang Holdings; Helena Morrissey, head of personal investing, Legal & General Investment Management; Suki Sandhu, founder and chief executive of INvolve; and Harriet Arnold, assistant editor, FT Special Reports.

The lists will be unveiled at the FT’s Women at the Top conference in London on Thursday, September 20 and in the next Women in Business report, published the same day.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

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