Unconscious bias leads organisations to discriminate, says report

A key reason for the lack of women at the top of corporations is that they are penalised for prioritising childcare duties over work, according to a report by Mercer.

The study revealed European data showing that only 29 per cent of senior managers across the continent are female, with the UK close to the average at 28 per cent. Mercer’s figures consider a wider senior population than FTSE boardrooms, where only 15 per cent of executives are women.

Sophie Black, principal in Mercer’s executive remuneration team, described women’s representation as woeful. Although the causes are complex and cultural and social factors play a part, much of it could be attributed to unconscious bias on the part of organisations, she said.

A woman’s career receives a “maternity penalty” in the eyes of employers for prioritising childcare duties over work,” said Black. “Corporate culture plays a huge part in causing women to deselect themselves from corporate life. If the culture of a company is such that those holding senior roles are expected to act in a certain way or place work above family commitments, then women will often turn their backs on the corporate ladder.”

She said that the end result of these issues was a “pyramid of invisibility” for women in corporate life. According to Mercer’s data, Greece and Ireland had the highest proportion of female managers in western Europe with 33 per cent, followed by Sweden (30 per cent) and Belgium (29 per cent). The lowest were Italy (22 per cent) Austria (21 per cent), Germany (20 per cent) and the Netherlands (21 per cent). The last finding is particularly revealing, said Black.

“The figure for Netherlands suggests that it is very conservative, in its approach to equality in the workplace,” she said. “Actually, the reverse is true. It’s a progressive nation but, like the UK, has very high levels of women working part-time. Part-time work is a major factor determining the low number of women in senior roles and part-time workers tend to be overlooked for promotion. Cultural factors and expectations of childcare responsibilities often mean that part-time work is dominated by women so it has reduced their representation in senior roles.”

Several eastern European countries have higher female representation among senior managers – in Lithuania the figure is 44 per cent, and in Russia, 40 per cent. Nevertheless, these countries still have a notable gender pay gap.

“Equality is a legacy from Soviet times with cultural and political life encouraging women to perform an equal role in society and the economy, so women were well represented,” Ms Black pointed out.
“However, on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Bloc came the market forces and this is resulting in a steady erosion of equality which is causing the gender pay gap to widen.”

Quota systems to increase women’s representation in business have been in existence for several years in countries like Spain, Norway, France, Belgium and Italy. In the UK, the government is taking steps to improve women’s representation in the boardroom following Lord Davies” report “Women on Boards” which recommended that FTSE companies pursue a target of 25 per cent women on their boards.