How to promote female empowerment

, by Paola Profeta - ordinaria presso il Dipartimento di scienze sociali e politiche
From gender quotas to role models that help defeating stereotypes: this is how the quest for gender equality and equal dignity is achieved. But the real goal is to make society more efficient and meritocratic

In politics, the economy and academia, decision-making positions are still largely occupied by men. According to EIGE, the European Institute for Gender Equality, today in Europe women represent on average 33% of the presidents and board members of major companies, 22% of CEOs, 32.6% of national MPs, 34% of local government officials, 26.6% of presidents and members of national academies of science.

In Italy the situation is particularly critical in the field of science, where women represent only 12.5% of the country's scientists. On the other hand, in corporate boards of listed companies, are now 42.6%, thanks above all to the introduction of gender quotas in corporate governance bodies required by Law 120/2011 (so-called Golfo-Mosca Law). Before the introduction of gender quotas, women were only 7% of board members.
Gender quotas are now an international best practice: after ten years of discussion, at the end of 2022 an EU Directive was approved which provides for gender quotas for the boards of directors of large listed companies in Europe with the aim of attaining 40% of both genders among non-executive directors and 33% overall. This measure is accompanied by other best practices which provide for measures to increase the presence of women in top executive positions, such as the certification of gender equality for companies, introduced in Italy starting from 2022. This is part of EU strategy for 2020-2025, which introduces incentive mechanisms on wage and salary compensation transparency in private companies to achieve the objective of "equal pay for equal work of equal value".

Why is it important to promote women's empowerment and female leadership? Many recent studies try to give an answer that goes beyond the motivations of equality and equal representation. In fact, these are also efficiency reasons. If women have the same levels of education, skills and talent as men, as is now known to happen in many fields in our societies, restricting decision-making positions to just the male gender does not guarantee the best possible selection. A virtuous process can begin if making room for qualified women means giving up less qualified men with the consequence that the inclusion of women executives increases the the probability of having leaders - men and women – who are on average more qualified. Confirming this argument, the introduction of gender quotas in Italy has been accompanied by an increase in the level of educational credentials of the individuals who sit on corporate governance bodies (Ferraro et al., 2022). Obviously, the necessary condition to start this process is the existence of a pool of highly qualified women who, for reasons related to discrimination or simply for lack of attention to gender representation, were not considered for these positions.

Another important element is the result obtained by women in leadership positions: women can change the decision-making agenda, proposing policies that can in turn strengthen female empowerment (Profeta, 2020). In politics, for example, the presence of women in leadership positions is accompanied by greater public spending on childcare services, which in turn are essential for the employment of mothers and the reduction of gender gaps.
Finally, female empowerment is important because women and men are different and the female style of leadership in a traditionally male world can create value starting from innovation. Decades of experimental studies have shown that women are more risk-averse than men, tend to be less competitive and have a long-time horizon. Even during the pandemic, women in decision-making positions took different decisions from men, often more oriented towards the long term.

How to promote female empowerment? There are fields where the situation is more critical, for example in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, where women are under-represented starting from college students. Coupled with the digital gender gap, the situation is worrying, as these fields will be increasingly relevant in tomorrow's high-performing jobs.

However, there is no shortage of illustrious examples of women in science, today and in history, such as Samantha Cristoforetti, Margherita Hack, Rita Levi Montalcini and Marie Curie. Role models are important in motivating girls and showing society what female leadership can achieve in terms of fair and efficient outcomes. They also help to overcome the main obstacle, which is cultural bias. According to data from the World Value Survey measuring explicit gender stereotypes, more than 15% of Italians agree with the statement "Men are better business leaders than women". The most recent research shows that implicit stereotypes are even more acute and widespread than explicit ones and concern everyone in the firm, entrepreneurs, managers, workers. Without even realizing it, these stereotypes play a very powerful role in guiding the decisions about hiring and promoting women. Discarding them is complicated, but it is a challenge to be faced and overcome if the goal is to promote female empowerment.