Women in the boardroom – time for change

Published: Monday | March 10, 2014 Comments 0
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

Michael Abrahams, Online Columnist

The idea behind observing International Women’s Day every March 8 is to commemorate the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing on areas that require further action. The theme for this year is ‘Inspiring Change’, promoting advocacy for the advancement of women in all spheres. So, have women advanced in Jamaica, and if so, to what extent, and with how much impact?

For starters, for the first time in our history we have a female prime minister, who was selected by an internal election in the first instance, but was eventually voted in by the populace. We also now have our first female chief justice and our first female director of public prosecutions. Women now dominate at tertiary-level institutions, regarding matriculation, attendance and graduation, with the female population at the University of the West Indies now exceeding 80 per cent. Not surprisingly, the number of women in the labour force, people aged 15 and over who meet the International Labour Organization's definition of the economically active population, has also been gradually increasing, at 45.14 per cent in 2011, according to the World Bank.

Unfortunately, these statistics have not translated to female dominance at the workplace, as the unemployment rate among women is twice that of men (16.6 percent versus 8.3 per cent) and there is still a significant gender disparity regarding salaries (women are paid, on average, 12.5 per cent less than their male counterparts) and female presence in boardrooms.

But having more women sit on boards is not just a nice idea; it also makes good economic sense and the positive effects of this have been clearly demonstrated by research.
For example, a study by Catalyst, a leading global research foundation, found that in the United States, Fortune 500 businesses with three or more women on their boards have 53 per cent higher returns on equity, 42 per cent higher returns on sales, and 66 per cent higher returns on invested capital than those who do not. A Leeds University Business Study showed that having at least one female director on the board appears to cut a company's chance of going bust by 20 per cent and that having two or three female directors lowered the chance of bankruptcy even further.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, noted in a blog in 2012 that according to the Boston Consulting Group, 70 per cent of household purchasing decisions are made by women. Indeed, 47.1 per cent of households in Jamaica are headed by single women who, obviously, make these decisions. Introducing women brings more diversity to the boardroom, as women and men's brains are wired rather differently, and it is these differences that may complement one another, resulting in more profitable outcomes. For example, research has shown that women are less susceptible to corruption than men and are better at multitasking. So, if women are running almost half the households in this country and outnumbering men at tertiary-level institutions, there is no valid reason for them to be underrepresented in high level positions. Unfortunately, there are still people, mainly men, who believe that a woman's place is barefoot and in the kitchen.

Appreciating this resistance to change and female empowerment, the 51% Coalition, an alliance of women, women's organisations and partners, has been formed in an effort to promote gender equality on boards and in decision making. One of the demands of the Coalition is the securing of quotas by legislation for public-sector boards and commissions and publicly listed companies to have as members no more than 60 per cent and no fewer than 40 per cent of either sex.

Critics fear that such a move would increase the visibility and power of women who may not merit such appointments based on ability. However, based on the available statistics, there appears to be more than enough women to fill these positions, and in a society where chauvinistic and misogynistic attitudes and patriarchal prejudice are appreciable, it is my opinion that such guidelines are definitely worth exploring.

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com.

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