Lenarduzzi: 'Women can rescue the economy'

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"Our economy has a real problem with under-representation of women," according to Isabella Lenarduzzi, the founder of the 'JUMP' forum, which will take place in Brussels on 23 April. Speaking to EurActiv in an interview, she explained that "women's role in business is increasingly important".

Isabella Lenarduzzi is the founder and managing director of Belgium's annual 'JUMP' forum,  Belgium's biggest event dedicated to women and their professional lives.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The second edition of your JUMP Forum this year will focus on the theme 'Can women rescue the economy?'. Would you like to comment on this?

Yes. With the obvious worldwide economic crisis, women's role in business is increasingly important. We have to ask the question, 'if there were more women in decision-making positions, would the crisis exist as it does today?'.

While it is obviously not possible to get an answer to that question, the fact that we can ask it shows the great changes that still need to occur in business. Our economy has a real problem with the under-representation of women. 

The JUMP Forum seeks to address this by seeking solutions. How are we going to use this crisis to change the paradigm to create diversity in businesses and install women as leaders? As most business leaders understand, periods of crisis are instigators of change. We want more women in business to benefit from this crisis. We want business leaders to finally recognise and concede to the various studies and research available, which shows that increased diversity equates to improved performance.

Right now, 60% of the young graduates from European universities are women, and our society is faced with a choice. Will we accept a very low return on education investment, with women being under-represented in the labour force and moreover in management positions - and underpaid - or do we give everyone the opportunity to fulfil their talents?

Do you think the collapse of the economy is linked to the fact that the world of big business is still largely a male preserve?

Absolutely! I think there is a direct connection between the absence of diversity and the presence of financial insecurity. Men tend to react in a standard manner to financial problems with the usual cost-cutting solutions. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on the whole community. 

To foster change and solve problems, more than one way of thinking is likely to be helpful. It is not a question of male or female, as it is a question of variety in ways of thinking. By having both men and women in decision-making roles, there is greater balance in the solutions, taking in various perspectives. It makes perfect sense – two heads are better than one. The same applies to gender, so two genders are better than one! 

By including more women, men are likely to benefit from this workplace diversity, as it fosters more variety in thinking and acting than traditional male models of behaviour. Everyone stands to gain from increased workplace diversity.

Since women account for around 44% of the employed population in the EU and only 1 out of 10 places on company boards, doesn't it seem that in most countries, companies have failed to fully embrace the concept of gender equality in the workplace?

The World Economic Forum recently published its annual report on the Global Gender Gap rankings. The Nordic countries are leading the charge, with women well-represented across the four benchmarks that are tested: education, health, involvement of women in the economy and politics. 

Belgium comes 28th, even lower than last year! All the Western countries have managed parity regarding education and health, but it is the participation in politics that lowers America (as they have great women-in-business rankings), and it is participation in business that drops Belgium to the bottom of the table in Europe (rank 60).

Again, that is why there is the need for JUMP actions. We need to address the economic and business disparity across Belgium (and Europe) in relation to gender. 'When all think alike, no one is thinking very much' characterises the potential danger of boards consisting of people that look alike. If anything, this crisis has proven that the persistent lack of gender diversity on boards has not led to high performance - so it's time to change and embrace the business benefits of diversity.

Here is a perfect example: a recent French study into the fall of share prices of the CAC 40 showed a positive effect of women on boards. While the average share price of the CAC 40 companies dropped 43% in 2008, companies with a high number of women in top management recorded better numbers. One of the best practices is Sodexho, with 43% female managers. It recorded a fall in its share price of only 8%, far less than most listed businesses. 

If the crisis did anything, it shows that the call for diversity in management has become a must now.

Since the Treaty of Rome, the EU has put gender at the core of its policies. Why don't we have more women in top-level positions? What went wrong?

Well, 8 March was International Women's Day, and I think it's a great symbol for the answer to that question. The struggle for equality is ongoing. While there have been many women and men before us who helped pave the way to where we are today, the fight for equality must continue. The sustainability of our acquired rights and the strengthening of our confidence are needed to live out those rights recognised through our history.

Feminism is about equality, and respect for all human beings. And that is a struggle we need to fight in the less obvious areas – like the boardroom. While we know women are working, they are under-represented in positions of power and authority. We want equal pay [and] equal representation across all sectors, equal choice and opportunity. Change takes time and so the feminist movement perseveres.

More specifically, in relation to a lack of women in top-level positions, the issue of work/life balance comes into play, as the woman shouldn't be forced to sacrifice her career in the name of a family. Child rearing should not put the automatic onus on the female, so if and when there are children, men must take an equal role and responsibility in raising them. To succeed in this very difficult area, a great deal of partnership between the man and woman is required. Family management must be a two-person responsibility.

In addition to that, the success of gender equality is also in legal measures, at companies who respect and accommodate for workers with families.

In Norway, public limited companies are legally required to have a minimum of 40% of members from each sex on their boards, and if they fail to do so, they are faced with sanctions, including closure of the company. Do you think we need something like that across Europe? Or what other measures can we come up with to ensure that there is equal representation in top positions?

Yes indeed! The prime minister of Norway made that request to boost the innovation of the economy by this minimum female representation. It is a provocative and exciting measure, one which I enthusiastically support, and which is bound to have interesting results.

The companies initially concerned by this measure arrived at a representation of 25% women on board without too many problems. However, 40% was a whole other level of equality harder to achieve. What is so thrilling about this governmentally-induced problem is that it forced businesses to think outside the box. Companies had to change the paradigm and imagine other profiles to fill in the seats of the board. We're talking about people they might not have considered, such as one lacking a MBA. Or viewing women's experience more horizontally, without financial or line management backgrounds.

While some businesses might baulk at this solution, what is so radical about these efforts is that businesses were forced to change, equality and goals have been achieved, and the future is yet to be written. I can't wait to see what happens next - I think there will be growth and change, but in unexpected areas. All because there are various perspectives and viewpoints now being entered into the decision-making equation.

Shouldn't the public sector lead the way and impose quotas on female representation?

Yes! First the public, then the private follows. Public companies currently have a very poor power balance between genders. In Belgium, only 15% of senior executives in public administrations are women. However, women make up more than 60% of all workers! Quotas should be established in public administrations and publicly-owned companies.

You can see with the Belgian government, there is a much higher representation of females in the government than say in the US, because there is a legal requirement for parity in the list of candidates. Because we force this representation, the end result is a more diverse government with a more accurate population representation.

What I think you should be asking though is WHY! Why should we enforce quotas on female representation? And the answer is – it works! Representation of women in the workforce has shown again and again to be more financially successful. The greater the number or women executives there are in a company, the less the stockmarket price will have decreased, a recent study revealed. 

I mean, if businesses really were listening, if they were truly paying attention, I would think they would hear these statements, they would stop in their tracks, take a look around at their peers and realise they need more women.

I mean, if you think about it, if a business CEO heard about a great new management technique that upped the average worker's performance or a stock option that guaranteed strong results, don't you think they would invest in testing out these options? It is a huge financial solution being shamefully ignored. Studies have shown that companies that promote women have superior performance. It is really that simple.

And in these economic times, diversity of leadership could help businesses outperform competitors and reach a wider customer base – so says one of our JUMP Forum speakers Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jordan, GM for Catalyst Europe. She (and many other topics) will touch on how to change the system and instigate change in business institutions.

In the run-up to the elections, some parties have come up with zipped lists. A survey carried out by Eurobarometer shows, however, that women do not favour quotas, but would rather see women politicians talk more about issues that affect women (jobs, childcare, reconciliation of work and family life, pension, etc.) Do you think women politicians have failed to engage women in policymaking and to function as a role models to attract even more women?

Hmm. Your question is framed quite negatively. It makes me think you already have an opinion on this!

I think that national politics are tough. It's a power struggle, a complex strategic game, and most women don't feel comfortable with that. They prefer efficient action in a friendly and respectful atmosphere. Regretfully, we can acknowledge that politics aren't always as action-oriented - or even respectful for that matter! That's why the number of female candidates is still lower than the male ones. 

I think politics will change with more diversity, but it will take time to change. I look forward to more women exercising power and more politically-influential women.

For women, work and family reconciliation is a constant struggle. What legislative initiative do you think will help keep women in the job market during the childbearing years? Some advocate making childcare tax-deductive, or introducing other incentives or initiatives?

Great question. I believe in a number of initiatives. I mentioned before the need for balance between the partnerships at home. But for that to be successful, the woman also needs to be supported by the initiatives put in place at the workplace. I would suggest compulsory parental leave for fathers, so that they are allowed a certain amount of vital child-rearing time. I support European Parliament initiatives in extending maternity leave, but I would like to see it as a right and not as an obligation.

I support the European Parliament's targets for minimal childcare access before elementary school. I would also love to see quotas for boards and management committees. Plus, I'd like to see quotas for governments and parliaments. As Norway has shown, meeting quotas is possible, and having an accurate representation of both genders in the public and private sector is an inspiring vision of the future. 

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