How Women Will Save Europe

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, January 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

How Women Will Save Europe


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey

(If just enough of them reach the corporate boardrooms--)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is without question the most powerful leader in Europe. International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde is one of the most influential figures in the entire global economy. The British still revere (or, in some cases, revile) their enduring Iron Lady, former prime minister Margaret Thatcher. And the Finns had a woman president for so long, Tarja Halonen from 2000 to 2012, that some youngsters in Helsinki were surprised to learn last year that a man could hold the job. Europe has gotten quite accustomed to women leaders in government, and as an idea, but not in business.

That, however, is where they are needed most. Europe is in deep trouble, its economy treading water for the moment, but always threatening to plunge into the abyss of recession and pull much of the rest of the world in after it. Women potentially could come to the rescue if there were more of them, not only in the workforce--where their numbers are high, but their salaries often aren't--but in top management. They're needed in the executive suites and on the boards where they've traditionally been absent--and where, despite a lot of hot debate and well-intentioned hype, they're still amazingly rare. On average, 10 percent of the top officers of a European corporation are women, but in many European countries that figure declines dramatically. In Sweden the figure is 21 percent, for instance, while in Germany, just 3 percent. (In the United States it's 14 percent; in Japan, a pitiful 1 percent.)

Bringing women into senior management is first a matter of exploiting an existing and much-needed pool of talent: 60 percent of Europe's university graduates are female. "We are an aging society," European Commission Vice President Viviane Reding told the annual women's forum in Deauville, France, last fall. "We do not have the right to leave that talent idle." When Reding asked business schools to come up with a list of women qualified to sit on European corporate boards, they found, as someone once said, binders full of women: 8,000 of them. Yet resistance to putting them on boards continues throughout Europe. (Paradoxically, many of the countries where few women rise to the top of the workforce are also those with very low birthrates and rapidly aging populations. "These countries are very concerned now that they won't have enough workers to pay for aging societies," says Monika Queisser of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. "They are really worried. And when faced with the choice of letting women work or getting migrants in, the less bad option for them is to let women work." But that backhanded reasoning is hardly enough to bring change.)

Women are needed to help corporations deal with an increasingly unpredictable business environment. "We strongly believe that the more uncertain the world is, the more diverse you need the management to be," says Agnes Audier of the Boston Consulting Group. This diversity can come from different nationalities or simply different styles, but one of the most obvious ways to assure it is through different genders.

And women are needed to help the bottom line. McKinsey & Co. consultants have shown a very strong correlation between the presence of women in the executive suite, a company's positive sense of its own organizational performance, and its financial performance. Indeed, in one of its most recent studies, McKinsey found that most of the clients surveyed said the kind of management they wanted and needed in the crisis is the kind generally associated with women: shared decision making, adroit use of expectation and rewards, intellectual stimulation. Yet what many businesses have been getting since the crunch came is an increase in the my-way-or-the-highway management often associated with male bosses. …

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