Jobs and the Future of Work

Women hold the key to the economy of the future

Deborah Steinborn
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The taboo has been overcome. For decades, discussions about gender-specific behaviour were deemed politically incorrect. This is no longer the case since the idea of male superiority lurking in the background has been thoroughly discounted, and as a result we are finally developing a real understanding of the strengths of women in business.

How can gender diversity spark a much-needed revolution in the world economy? Granted, there are still many impediments to women in leadership, even in developed nations such as the US, Germany and Japan. But Western societies in particular, with their ageing populations and dearth of highly skilled labour, cannot afford to ignore half of their own home-grown talent when it comes to setting future economic agendas.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2013 speaks to this effect. Iceland – which was ranked in the report as the most advanced country in the world in terms of gender equality – overcame a brutal financial crisis by opening up to female leadership in companies and in government. The Scandinavian countries that follow managed to sustain strong welfare states and combine them with dynamic economies by opening up to female participation at all levels early on.

The numbers speak for themselves. Studies show that the more gender-diverse the top management of a company is, the better the financial and organizational performance. Cooperation, risk awareness, empathy and flexibility are not exclusively female traits, but women in leadership exhibit them much more often than men. And increasingly, companies trying to get ahead in the global marketplace expect these traits in their leaders.

But it isn’t enough to bring just one or two women onto an executive board. Companies must truly embrace the benefits that a gender-equal workplace can bring. Our book, Think Again! How the Economy is Becoming More Feminine, shows that it makes sense for companies to open their cultures to both genders. This is perhaps the last great economic adventure, and one which can be profitable for all.

It starts with the way we think about gender as well as economics. Indeed, it is our long history of male-dominated economic thinking that has led to gender imbalances in economic practice and business. In this model, the world was a place of superrational and egoistic beings competing against each other. It was a men’s world and gave men a reason to believe business was theirs to lead. Meanwhile, economic thinking has broadened and a new generation of female economists is taking a second look at human behaviour, far from the old model of homo oeconomicus. And it is solving concrete, pressing problems for consumers, employees and entrepreneurs alike.

As part of our research, we’ve met fascinating women at the forefront of this economic revolution. German entrepreneurs are fighting labour unions and rigid tradition to create a flexible workplace for men and women alike. Icelandic bankers, unlike male competitors, have thrived through boom and bust. American leaders such as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg are battling a standstill in the drive towards a gender-equal economy. And Norway’s leaders have joined forces to set a contentiously high quota for women at the top, with surprising success.

Strong women, from the IMF’s Christine Lagarde to Saudi Arabia’s Lubna Olayan (many of whom we first met at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos), are the heroes of our book. The world needs more of them. And they, in turn, need the world’s support.

Read more blogs on gender.

Authors: Deborah Steinborn is an award-winning US correspondent. Uwe Jean Heuser is Chief Economic and Business Editor at Die ZEIT. 

Image: A woman is seen walking up the stairs in a bank in England REUTERS/Kieran Doherty.
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Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFinancial and Monetary SystemsEconomic GrowthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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