It will take 108 years to close the overall global gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Report. One doesn’t have to look far to see the real-world inequalities reflected in this statistic. Even in relatively progressive Germany, where I live, women face a pay gap of about 17%, one of the largest in Europe.

Closing the pay gap worldwide and achieving equal participation in the workforce could increase the size of the world economy by some $160 trillion, according to a World Bank study. That’s almost double current global GDP.

And even that may be a conservative estimate. It is well documented that diversity and inclusion help make companies more profitable, innovative and respected, so it’s hard to know just how much added value a fully inclusive labor force could bring. If we’re ever going to find out, we need to embrace the value women can bring to their roles, to their employers and to society as a whole.

 Europe still has a lot of work to do to close its gender pay gaps
Europe still has a lot of work to do to close its gender pay gaps
Image: Bloomberg/Eurostat

Companies with gender diversity in leadership outperform their less diverse peers. On average, their advantage is seen in a 48% higher operating margin, a 42% higher return on sales and a 45% higher earnings per share. In addition, gender-diverse teams make better business decisions up to 73% of the time.

At my company, Merck, we set a strategic goal in 2011 of increasing the percentage of management positions held by women to between 25% and 30% - a target we reached in 2016. Across all of Merck, women currently occupy approximately 30% of leadership roles.

But this is not enough. Within a few years, we would like to see a ratio that more fairly reflects the equal shares of our total workforce that men and women represent. We are confident that making decisions on hiring and promoting solely based on job-related qualifications, in the context of a truly level playing field, will get us there.

What are the obstacles we face? The fact is that most people don’t really set out to discriminate against women systematically. The problem is that their unconscious bias does it for them, which is why I think this is the single biggest issue. And that’s why I strongly support training in this area. Recognising and addressing unconscious bias is the basis for an inclusive culture in which everyone can contribute and develop in line with their full potential.

Other than that, it’s about creating an environment in which women can count on support in the same concrete ways that men have always been able to take for granted. For example, women need the benefit of executive sponsorship, just as men do. And succession planning has to take women in account. This has not always been the case at our company, even when we had a robust pipeline of high-potential female candidates. Personally, I don’t waste my time looking at succession plans that do not include female candidates.

Similarly, our candidate slates didn’t adequately reflect the presence of women, especially when we had both internal and external candidates.

As the chief executive of Merck Healthcare, I am fully behind our commitment to create a more level playing field. I am focused on ensuring that all of our employees - independent of gender - continue to be recognised for the contributions they make to our business, our customers, and - most importantly - our patients. I believe that the breakthroughs we achieve for our patients – be it our new oral therapy for people with multiple sclerosis, or our innovative drug to fight a rare and aggressive type of skin cancer – are in part a result of diversity and inclusion: different perspectives driving better results.

I am proud to be in a leadership role at a company that respects, values and embraces the benefits of our people’s differences. One never has to look too far to find real-world evidence of a gender gap that in fact is all around us. I look forward to the day when such inequalities are relics of the past.