Women’s progress stalls – “we need to solve the culture challenge”

14 Mar 2014

Progress in women’s economic empowerment has stalled since the financial crisis – that’s the headline message from PwC’s ‘Women in Work’ index, now in its second year.

The ‘WiW Index’ is compiled from a weighted average of five key measures of female economic empowerment for 27 countries in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of rich countries. It uses data from the OECD and other national statistics.

According to the Index results, although countries across the OECD have made significant gains in female economic empowerment in the past decade, progress seems to have stalled since the financial crisis – and in some cases, partially reversed.

Though the overall situation for women has improved, with a general narrowing of the wage gap across OECD countries and an increased percentage of women participating in the workforce, the female unemployment rate has risen, and the proportion of women in full-time employment has barely improved since 2000.

Click the image here to see longer trends

In some cases, this may be because of the level of progress made so far. Some OECD countries find it socially and culturally easier than others to implement approaches like board composition targets. In those places – for example Denmark and Norway – less obvious measures are required to close the gap.

In countries that have experienced serious, recent economic shocks, such as the countries in Southern Europe, unemployment levels have rocketed, and this has disproportionately impacted women. In Greece and Portugal, the female unemployment rate has increased by more than 10 percentage points since 2000, and in Spain it has increased by approximately 5 percentage points.

Click the image here to see how female unemployment has worsened since the crisis

Talking about the UK’s poor figures for women in full-time work, Gaenor Bagley, head of people and executive board member at PwC said: “The low level of females in full-time employment is holding back both the UK’s economic recovery and women’s career progression”, which rings true across much of Europe.

Ms Bagley’s advice to companies is to make sure that the simple things are being done well: “We know women are confident and ambitious”, she said, “they just need a workplace and society that support these aims. This often means getting the basics, such as how people are assessed and rewarded at work, right.”

But she hinted at a more complex challenge too, saying that the UK’s “cultural perception of gender equality needs to catch up”. According to Ms Bagley – and borne out by the results of the WiW Index – policy changes, though positive, are not enough. “Some of the reasons the Nordic countries top the Index is down to the recognition that all individuals should be able to balance their career and family life, and to support themselves… For the UK to make real progress we first need to solve the culture challenge.”