By Andrés Raya & María Díaz

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinta Ardern, has cemented her popularity following her efforts to manage the pandemic. She came to power in 2017 at the age of 37, and a year later she became the second world leader to give birth to a child while in office.

Twenty-eight years had to elapse before a head of government emulated Benazir Bhutto, the first person to become a mother while leading a nation; just as Bhutto did before, Ardern gives the world a daily demonstration that it is possible to bring up a baby and perform the tasks of prime minister at the same time. 

Nevertheless, female figures that are potential models for the new generations of men and women remain few and far between and are not very visible. This is a long-standing problem.

Jacinta Ardern
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According to Eurostat data for 2019, the EU employment rate among women aged 20 to 64 was 66.5%; at 59.6% Spain recorded one of the lowest percentages, ahead of only Greece, Italy, Malta and Croatia, while the employment rate for men in this age group was 71.5%. The rate for women in Spain who had been unemployed for more than a year stood at 8.9%, compared with 6.7% for men. This gap can partly be explained by the fact that of all the EU Member States, Spain has the fourth highest percentage of population who are inactive because they are caring for dependents: 29.7%; only Cyprus (42.7%), Ireland (39.4%) and Malta (33.6%) have higher figures.

Indeed, this responsibility is almost always borne by women, and there is no country where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women. Even where the ratio is lower, it is still 2:1, as indicated in the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 published by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

The EU employment rate among women aged 20 to 64 was 66.5%, compared with 71.5% for men

And it would appear that this is not an issue linked with development or education, for the OECD recognises that higher levels of economic development do not automatically lead to a fairer redistribution of unpaid work between women and men. Gender stereotypes that assign women almost exclusive responsibility for domestic tasks and childcare persist in all kinds of societies, however diverse they aim to be. Indeed, in 2018, 30.8% of European women in employment aged 20 to 64 worked part-time, compared with 8% of men.

Another example of this reality can be found in the general index published by the WEF, which looks at parameters of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and political responsibility. In this respect, the good news is that Spain recorded a good result this year, moving up from 29th to 8th position, but it still remains behind in terms of the ratio of women to men on boards of directors, with only 22%, highlighting the difficulties encountered by women in gaining access to management positions. This is a serious limitation, among other reasons, because it prevents the creation of female models with a high enough profile to inspire other women.

Legislation and measures taken by the companies themselves can and are helping to change these ratios, but not people's perceptions, which are anchored in more deep-rooted beliefs: for example, that in economic and employment terms a woman is worth less than a man, or that there are areas of employment exclusively for men or women. It is due to these unconscious prejudices based on cultural stereotypes that the process of reducing the gender gap is a slow one.

Gender stereotypes that assign women almost exclusive responsibility for domestic tasks and childcare persist in all kinds of societies

But the strange thing is we are all now aware of the consequences of these prejudices, and they are not exclusively cultural and social, but also strictly economic.

According to the European Commission, this year there could be a shortage of 500,000 digital workers across the continent, while fewer than one in three of the current ICT workforce are female. In Europe, only 32% of students on STEM courses are women.

The EIGE estimates that closing the gender gap in these sectors would add €820 billion to the EU economy by 2050. Other entities, such as the Council on Foreign Relations, consider that closing this gap could add $28 trillion to the global GDP. As a Harvard Business School report on the venture capital sector notes: "the more similar the investment partners, the lower their investments' performance". In fact, firms that increased their proportion of female partner hires by 10% have seen an increase in fund returns. Evidence can now be seen, despite progress being slow.

Stem careers
In Europe, only 32% of students on STEM courses are women (Photo: Michael Lane/Twenty20)

Therefore, as a result of the stereotypes, discrimination and prejudices, be they conscious or unconscious, the world pays a significant price in terms of lack of growth. How can we turn this situation around?

Clearly, an essential tool is the role model. The crux of the matter lies in identifying, creating and promoting models that have an influence on the motivation, objectives and results of those who observe them, providing examples of actual behaviour and showing those following them a potential and desirable version of themselves.

A woman who demonstrates her worth every day as an entrepreneur and family member, who also shares her story (as men have always done amongst themselves) and acts as an example to others, is a role model. The discourse of diversity must be rooted in its value and its efficiency, and it must be communicated in terms of society and business, since storytelling is an essential part of our perception of reality. By changing the narrative, the gender prejudices that condition our way of thinking are modified. 

Female students are more likely to choose a specialisation in STEM subjects when they come across a female instructor

A lot is being done, but much remains to be done. The main characters in children's books are a new phenomenon in recent years. Historically, female characters have been negative figures (the witch, the stepmother), or if not, completely dependent on the male hero.

Childhood is an excellent starting point, but at some stage nearer adolescence and youth, efforts wane and results are lost; adolescents and young people need stereotypes that will help them to mark out their identity, and nowadays these tend to be sentimental relationships and friendships. The introduction at this stage of the role models that we mentioned earlier could help to make quicker and more fruitful progress.

It all starts in the family and at school. In fact, it is precisely at school age that young girls begin to form an idea of themselves and to project this idea into the future, identifying models in which they can recognise themselves.

Students in school
Adolescents and young people need stereotypes that will help them to mark out their identity (Photo: Jonathan Sim/Twenty20)

In the field of science in particular, girls barely have access to models of reference or, at least, these are very few in number. A Microsoft study of 2018 found that efforts to promote interest and employment for women in STEM fields are not working as had been hoped. On the other hand, as the researchers Eric P. Bettinger and Bridget Terry Long have established, female pupils are more likely to choose a specialisation in STEM subjects when they come across a female instructor, and there are very few of these.

Finally, the research conducted by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian shows that girls begin to question their intellectual ability in STEM subjects at the age of six, and they continue losing confidence as the gender ratio in the classes becomes less balanced.

Not for nothing has the ratio of women registered on undergraduate or master's programmes become a yardstick for measuring the quality of training offered. In this respect, in 2018, the Financial Times established that Esade offered the best MBA for women in Europe, with a ratio of men to women of 61% versus 39% in the 2019/2020 academic year.

If the world is short of girls who aspire to be engineers, scientists or pilots, it is because the most popular models are others

If the world is short of girls who aspire to be engineers, scientists or pilots, it is because the most popular models are others. Moreover, those women who perform functions considered to be "masculine" (due to the fact that to date it has mainly been men who have performed them) often make little attempt to tell their story; they do not think that talking about their career is a priority, believing that it is better to do rather than to talk about themselves, and it may even be an inappropriate attitude to have.

On the contrary, self-representation is important for showing the viability of certain objectives, especially when roles that contradict tradition are carried out. When women actively share their value, their competence and their history, they may be changing the lives of both boys and girls who observe and admire them.

Creating a sense of community fortified by gender models is very important for providing mutual support and stimulating improvement and personal and professional growth from adolescence upwards. Male camaraderie has always worked in this way.

In fact, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US written by Zoe Cullen of Harvard and Ricardo Pérez-Truglia of UCLA Anderson suggests that male bonding is largely responsible for the disadvantage suffered by women.

Male bonding is largely responsible for the disadvantage suffered by women

Fortunately, in the last few years we can find networks of women who support and drive each other, and women in prominent positions of leadership in fields that include medicine, finance, technology and politics, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Consequently, models to follow that are not solely directed towards elitist circles of managers and entrepreneurs are now beginning to spread.

Moreover, due to the success of movements like #metoo, the media have realised just how much what they write or broadcast is helping to maintain the status quo. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, has launched the editorial project Make it work, lessons from life in business, a publication that aims to highlight the 14 stories of the most inspiring British women in the world of work.

Sandberg Facebook
Sheryl Sandberg at the World Economic Forum (Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikipedia)

Time Magazine has unveiled an important initiative that focuses on women and representation. When announcing the feature 100 Women of the Year, it admits that in the past it has largely proposed male personalities, despite having changed its annual "Man of the year" cover to "Person of the year." The editorial team decided to rewind the tape and put forward one hundred new covers, all devoted to women in their particular time, from the suffragettes of 1920 to Greta Thunberg in 2019.

Finally, since 2013, the Amsterdam-based initiative Inspiring Fifty is an event that awards the 50 best women in the world, honouring founders and managers of technology companies, opinion leaders, university professors and researchers, and institutional representatives, with the aim of creating inspiring models for the new generations.

A key component in the presentation of credible models of conduct is ensuring that the success achieved by these models is feasible and reproducible

Online empowerment communities have also proliferated, where the spotlight is on female figures who stand out in a variety of sectors, including art, science, technology and business. However, simply producing lists is not sufficient; far-reaching cultural action is required to break down beliefs.

Furthermore, a key component in the presentation of credible models of conduct is ensuring that the success achieved by these models is feasible and reproducible. Indeed, research has shown that when people feel that the model they are looking at has become unreachable, its example may even become demoralising.

If you are a female student, the model offered by the head of a local research institute is more influential than the model offered by Angela Merkel. Hence the enormous importance of the role of local, accessible ambassadors who have the opportunity to converse with adolescent girls: in this situation, the girls see the possibility of a different future as very real.

In spite of all the difficulties, significant progress has been made in the technology sector. In 2019, in OECD countries, women represented nearly 30% of the labour force. Of these, 13.2% were promoted, compared with 12.1% of men, and the overall recruitment rate for women increased by 27.3%.

Organisations with an inclusive culture are six times more likely to be innovative

Nevertheless, there are still serious problems, as shown by the recent report Gender Diversity in AI Research, compiled by the Nesta Foundation in London. Based on an analysis of scientific publications on artificial intelligence, the study found that only 13.8% of the authors were women. During the next decade, artificial intelligence will play a central role in transforming work, and there is a real risk of forging a technology that is incapable of satisfying the needs of a complex population, since it is being shaped by just one part of society with a univocal world view.

Unless this industry manages to balance the situation and make these roles attractive and attainable for women, there is a risk of losing much (if not all) of the potential of the fourth industrial revolution.

With this in mind, in 2019, IBM created the Women Leaders in AI programme, which publishes an annual list of 35 women who have distinguished themselves in putting artificial intelligence to work in their own particular fields. In addition to recognising specific advances, the award creates a network of models that reveals different approaches to resolving the challenges of change. In the 2020 edition of the award, two Spanish women have been nominated: Rosa Martínez, cognitive project manager at CaixaBank, and Mónica Pedraza García, operations director at Banco Santander.

According to Deloitte, organisations with an inclusive culture are six times more likely to be innovative. And by keeping up to date with technological changes, they are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets. It is also important to propose female mentors and models, show confidence, create an environment that fosters collaboration and use technology to break down barriers.

Ultimately, organisations must ensure that the necessary ladders are in place so that women can rise to management positions, while women, for their part, must commit to telling their story, in order to inspire the new generations, boys and girls alike, who will have to build a more democratic and inclusive future that guarantees greater wealth and well-being for everyone.

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