• Traditional gender-based roles are being abandoned, yet we still celebrate "female leaders" for their gender.
  • Much work remains to strengthen workplace diversity.
  • Future generations should seek to abandon gender-based labelling.

My name is Laura Wilbanks and I'm the chief marketing office for Thomson Reuters. I have over 25 years’ deep marketing experience. Prior to joining Thomson Reuters, I was corporate vice president and chief marketing officer at Equifax.

And guess what? I wasn’t hired for either of those jobs because of my gender.

I was hired because I was the best candidate for the job.

Many women – and I consider myself one of them – see themselves as much more than a female leader. I feel this label can detract and deflect attention from my professional and personal achievements. I, for one, am thrilled it's become (and continues to become) easier for women to be who they want and do what they want without the shadow of gender stereotypes.

At the start of my career, I often felt confined in how I should act. It took a long time for me to be comfortable enough to bring my authentic self to the fore. When I look back, I feel like jumping into a DeLorean, travelling back in time and giving young Laura a pep talk. Along with a few pointers on questionable 80s fashion trends, I would tell her: you deserve to be here. Your voice matters. Your opinions are valid.

Times (and thankfully fashion!) have changed since then and, in terms of women in the workplace and gender stereotyping, we have made progress.

Yet, we’re still highlighting women achieving leadership roles. Sure, we should celebrate them. But shouldn’t we celebrate the candidate for the totality of who they are and not just their gender?

We have seen a fundamental shift in society during the last half a century. Views on traditional gender-based roles are being abandoned, and women have more options available to them than before. More women than ever are attending university or college. Female students are outperforming male students. Thanks to tech like Skype and Slack, people are no longer impeded by geographical region and time zones, or bound to an office; working environments are increasingly flexible.

So, how do these changes in societal demographics affect women in the workplace?

Organizations are explicitly stating gender workforce targets and making strides to ensure diversity in hiring panels and candidate slates.

In 2018, women accounted for 48.5% of the global workforce. A joint report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org (October 2019) found a 24% increase in the number of women holding C-suite roles since 2015. These changes are supported by initiatives such as Grace Hopper, which promotes diversity and inclusion in traditionally male-dominated industries such as technology and engineering. In some regions, businesses are held accountable and obliged to report on their gender pay gap and the number of women holding leadership positions.

This is not just a check-the-box exercise. A report from PwC shows the positive GDP impacts of increasing female employment rates, including a potential boost of $6 trillion across the OECD and $2 trillion to female earnings in these countries. (WEF’s Global Gender Gap report suggests it might take several generations before we see significant change.)

Population-weighted averages, including the 153 economies featured in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020.
The Global Gender Gap Index 2020 highlights where the gender gap has closed to date.
Image: World Economic Forum

With all these changes, do we still need to use the label "female leader" – or is it becoming more of a hindrance than a help to those of us who are defined as one?

The label can certainly empower women in the workplace. Positive female role models inspire and embolden other women. We cannot underestimate the part they play in society and the workplace.

Regardless of our gender, we have a responsibility to empower tomorrow’s leaders. As a woman and a leader, I get to speak with women from many different walks of life who are just starting out in, or thinking about, their careers. Here's my advice to them:

  • You were hired for your skills. Use them.
  • Find your voice. Use it.
  • Be you. Don’t try to be the picture that has been painted for you.
  • You will teach people how to treat you. Start off right.
  • Set your bar high – and go higher.

We continue to move the needle, but there is more to be done to push for sustainable change in terms of greater gender equality in the workplace, and specifically, gender pay parity. In a global business, the breadth and diversity of perspective is essential to success. There must be strong commitment to driving this change, and measurements against which we hold ourselves accountable and through which we can demonstrate impact.

And let’s make sure our conversations are equally diverse. Male allies are as critical to the conversations as females. Both women and men are keen to make a difference. To affect change, the conversations need to be united, not exclusive.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Those of us who have broken the glass ceiling must continue to pave the way for future generations, and to share what we have learned and the experiences that have shaped us. My hope for the future, for my children and for future generations, is that we move away from the term “female leader” and start recognizing women for what they are: inspirational, transformational, powerful and high achievers.