DAVOS, SWITZERLAND – When world political and business leaders gather these days, trade, globalization and Brexit dominate the discussions, and the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum held last week was no exception.
But with many female executives present at the meeting at a ski resort nestled among snow-capped mountains in Davos, gender equality also stirred up passionate discussions, reminding many that, even in 2019, parity is still far from reach.
The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies actually shrank to 24 in 2018 from 32 in 2017, representing a 25 percent decrease.
At the current rate of change, the WEF’s annual gender gap report released in December says it will take 108 years to narrow the overall gender gap and 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace.
There are undoubtedly many reasons behind the slow progress. But some participants in the Davos meeting, which attracted more than 3,000 top CEOs, civil society representatives and more than 60 heads of state, argued that how society views women in leadership could be an important factor.
In one of the sessions, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and former president of Chile, revealed that she was often asked unprofessional questions during her presidency.
Bachelet said she was asked how she would take care of children, about her domestic affairs and to whom she would turn to when she faced challenges.
“Have you ever asked that kind of stuff to a man?” Bachelet told the audience at the session, named “Female Leadership at a Tipping Point.”
“I will not be perfect because there is no such thing as a superwoman. But I will do my best,” she said, adding that bias against female leaders is ingrained in people’s minds.
Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder and president of Women Political Leaders (WPL), a global network of female politicians, echoed Bachelet’s sentiments.
“Every woman who is a leader has her own personal experiences about being questioned about her leadership ability. No matter which country it is, women have been confronted with totally unprofessional questions, remarks and criticism, which are gender-based, not performance-based,” Koch-Mehrin, who served as a member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2014, told The Japan Times in an interview.
In the first study of its kind, WPL and Kantar Public, a data research and consultancy company, jointly conducted research in September and October on 1,000 working-age adults aged 18 to 64 in each of the Group of Seven countries to find out whether men and women are viewed equally in terms of suitability for positions of power.
The survey showed that, compared to other industrialized nations, both Japanese men and women were uncomfortable having female leaders, demonstrating that their mindset may be hindering gender parity.
In an index that measures people’s perceptions of specific genders in leadership, G7 women scored 67 and men scored 61, meaning women are more likely to perceive both sexes as being equally suitable for leadership. A score of 100 would indicate that there is complete agreement that men and women are equally suited to lead in all sectors.
Michelle Harrison, Global CEO of Kantar Public, said the report shows that Japanese men have been the most resistant to having women in any form of leadership across all professional sectors.
According to the survey, 52 percent of British men feel comfortable with a woman as the head of government, the highest figure in the G7. Only 23 percent of men in Japan and 20 percent of men in Germany shared that view.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of women in Canada and Britain said they feel comfortable with having a woman as the head of the government in their country, while Japanese women scored the lowest, with just 26 percent.
It also showed Japanese women on a whole feel uncomfortable with having a woman as the CEO of a major company. While 70 percent of American women are comfortable with having females lead top firms, the highest rate among G7 women, only 28 percent of Japanese women felt the same way.
“So that’s the issue. … It captures the way women also have prejudice as well as men,” Harrison said in an interview.
However, it is not only Japan that has such perceptions toward women. Germany also has certain expectations for women that hinder their effort to join the workforce, according to Koch-Mehrin, who is from Germany.
“If you become a mother, and if you don’t stay at home for the first three years (with a child), you are seen as a bad mother,” she lamented.
She also stressed the importance of female role models.
Reflecting on a scandal in which Tokyo Medical University was found to have rejected many women by deducting their exam scores, she said, “In Japan, there are few women doctors. If you don’t have women doctors, people don’t think of women as doctors.
“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Both Kochi-Mehrin and Harrison said that compiling the index is just the first step in their attempt to show the reality of people’s perceptions.
“We haven’t gotten to the point where we can say ‘here is the series of actions that we need to start.’ But It makes me confident that it needs to be a combination of leaders from many different sectors taking this forward together. It won’t get fixed just by governments or industries,” Harrison said.
Kochi-Mehrin also stressed that it is important to inform the people who came to Davos about their survey because they hold enormous influence and power.
“We wanted to do a little bit of a wake-up call here because the discussions have been around for so long and nothing has really happened,” she said.