Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The route to true gender equality? Fix the system, not the women

Getting to 50/50 representation requires long-term planning at every level of an organization.

Getting to 50/50 representation requires long-term planning at every level of an organization. Image: Fauxels/Pexels

Carolyn Tastad
Chief Executive Officer Health Care, Procter & Gamble
Deanna Bass
Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, Procter & Gamble
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how SDG 05: Gender Equality is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

SDG 05: Gender Equality

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Longstanding prejudices about women still dominate workplaces.
  • Women should no longer be the sole focus of gender equality efforts.
  • Income equality should be the emphasis, rather than wage equality.

The data is clear: an equal world is a better world for all of us. When equality grows, communities are healthier, businesses are stronger, economies rise – and the world is a better place for everyone.

But today’s approaches to gender equality are still largely ineffective. The latest World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report now estimates a staggering 257 years to close the gap on economic participation for women – compared to 202 years in last year’s report.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise.

Have you read?

Bias, often in the form of false narratives about women, continues to be ingrained in our workplaces, our policies and our talent discussions about women and how to fill senior roles. Despite all evidence to the contrary, too many people in power still believe myths like women lack ambition, lack confidence, must carry more of the load at home, are opting out of big roles and that there aren’t enough women in the pipeline to increase representation in the C-suite. Leaders at the top of our organizations – men and women – along with HR managers, outside consultants and even self-proclaimed gender-equality advocates continue to reinforce these outdated and disproven notions.

Not only are these narratives just plain wrong, they cause us to focus on fixing the women vs. fixing the systems and norms that perpetuate the global gender gap. We continue pigeonhole gender equality as a women’s issue.

What if we acknowledged that gender inequality needs to be fixed, but the women don’t need to be?

This mindset shift changes everything. At P&G, we take the approach that gender equality is a business opportunity – and thinking about it this way has changed the trajectory of our work, our representation and our results.

Most corporate leaders and decision-makers believe they are already addressing gender equality. But bias – both conscious or and unconscious – gets in the way. And the result is a blind spot. As leaders and decision-makers, we only see part of the picture instead of the total landscape. This limits the way we act, react, believe and behave. It limits our effectiveness.

In the case of gender equality, we need to check our blind spots so we can see the total picture. That’s the only way we’ll stop going backwards and start making forward progress.

Let’s take workplace policies, as one example. Many companies have taken steps to improve maternity leave. And yet, the workplace gender gap continues to grow. Why? Because maternity leave is a career inflection point that uniquely affects women.

What if workplaces developed policies and programmes that support women as mothers and men as fathers, with sufficient paid maternity and paternity leave? As more men experience the process of taking leave – securing manager approval, creating coverage plans and navigating re-entry after several weeks away – company processes will improve for everyone, and more managers will be more empathetic to the needs of expectant parents.

Gender disparity in the workplace
Gender disparity in the workplace Image: World Economic Forum

And then there’s pay equality. Over the last few years, several big companies have been heralded for identifying and fixing pay gaps between women and men in the same roles. One could argue whether fixing a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place deserves celebration, but regardless, this is only the first step. What if – instead of being satisfied with fixing pay inequality – big business made fair pay the minimum standard, and income equality the new priority?

The Gender Gap Report describes the difference between the wage gap and income gap. The wage gap is the gap between how women and men are paid in similar positions. This is easy to spot and easy to fix in organizations that are committed to fair pay. The income gap is the difference in total wages earned by women vs. men. When more men than women hold more senior roles in an organization, there’s an income gap. The only way to address this is to achieve 50/50 representation at every level of the organization, including the C-suite.

Getting to 50/50 requires intentional, long-term talent planning at every level, including targets or quotas. But here, too, the typical approach of setting targets only for women is too narrow. We must tackle the numerator and the denominator by declaring hiring targets and representation quotas for women and for men. Our talent plans must encompass our total talent pool – not just a piece of it.

As world leaders internalize the stark realities in the Gender Gap Report, and as we look within our own organizations, we need every individual, every CEO and every leader to check their blind spots and embrace a broader set of steps required to close the gender gap.


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

It’s time to acknowledge that gender inequality must be fixed – but women don’t need to be. As counterintuitive as it may seem, taking the focus off women allows us to search more broadly for solutions and take a holistic approach. When we eliminate our blind spots, a bigger picture comes into view – of the systems, norms, cultures and biases that must be addressed before our workplaces and world can see equal.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Equity, Diversity and InclusionForum InstitutionalEconomic GrowthJobs and the Future of Work
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

How focused giving can unlock billions and catapult women’s wealth

Mark Muckerheide

May 21, 2024


About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum