Are European Women Being Left Behind?

June 10, 2014Women working in Europe trail their male counterparts in pay, position and management responsibilities–despite being equal to men in qualifications, experience and aspirations—says Catalyst's newly released research. They are stuck swinging on the lower branches of the corporate tree and are kept away from the juicy assignments linked with advancement.  

How is this so? Why aren’t women advancing to the same level as men? Cherie Booth QC, a leading UK barrister and wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, said recently: "I think the problem is, exceptional women will always succeed. But there are plenty of less exceptional men who succeed." Is the workplace in Europe (and all over) awash with male mediocrity and a handful of exceptional women? Or is it that women are simply not seen as equal to men in the workplace? We know from Catalyst research that women are compensated more based on proven performance, whereas men are compensated more based on potential.

For years, we’ve talked about the role of gender bias and how this can play a role in evaluating and promoting talent through the ranks. While many agree that bias is baked in the system, it is often not apparent until one has a personal experience. 

Not too many years ago, I was one of two women hired to join a largely male brokerage firm, which had recently moved to a new country. Without any HR or administrative infrastructure yet in place, it became clear that the youngest female (who had an MBA and spoke several languages) was selected by the brokers to do the errands. One day, she was sent to buy espresso beans, the next day to buy toilet paper. While two of us challenged this behaviour, and brought it to our superiors' attention, it was clear from the leadership that this was how things were done. I lasted one week.

Years later that same brokerage firm reached out to me to invest funds. I asked about the leadership, which had not changed, and I declined to invest.

Once in London, an executive woman told me a story of how when the tea tray was brought in to a meeting, the men (unconsciously) looked at her to pour the tea. She jokingly said: “You want me to pour the tea, don’t you?” and the men were obviously mortified. They were not aware of their unconscious assumptions that she would pour the tea, but it came out when they looked at her. She made light of it and used humor as a way to handle a difficult situation. After that, when the tea tray arrived the men would scramble to pour the tea. Once they were aware of this unconscious behavior, their behavior changed.

Judging by the countless stories that women share with me, it's clear that versions of these stories are being played out across Europe. And all of us—men and women alike—are susceptible to being biased and making assumptions about others. I once hired a consultant who looked like me, talked like me, and even had the same first name. In essence, I hired myself. When my superior pointed this out, I was mortified, but it was a learning I would never forget. Awareness does not always come in a neat, pretty package; sometimes it comes in the most awkward moments.

Our role is to challenge the decisions (especially about talent and who gets what projects), the status quo of how things have been done, and to ask better questions to ensure that talent is not being sacrificed to the assumptions made about 'talent'.

Although women are not yet advancing as fast as their male counterparts, I do believe that we will see the numbers move in Europe as companies accept that embracing ALL talent EQUALLY is an absolute business imperative.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.