Improving Women’s Access to Leadership: What Works?


Remarks by Angel Gurría

Secretary-General, OECD

8 March 2016

Paris, France



Ladies and Gentlemen,


Today we are celebrating international women’s day. I am delighted to welcome you on this occasion, because closing the gender gap in both the public and corporate sectors is critical, urgent, and long overdue.  


The OECD has been very active on this issue for years. An example are our 2013 Recommendations on Gender Equality in Employment, Education and Entrepreneurship. I would also like to highlight our OECD-MENA Women's Business Forum and the recently endorsed G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance, which include a recommendation on women in company boards. Today, I am pleased to launch a new path-breaking policy instrument: the OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life.


These instruments aim to support countries in closing the gender divide in public and corporate lives. We must harness the full participation of women in strategic decision-making to drive change. This is the only way to build the foundations for a stronger, more sustainable and inclusive growth, one that benefits all and creates opportunities for all.



Why women’s access to leadership matters


Today, high unemployment, sluggish growth and low productivity are indeed putting strong pressure on our economies to maximise the use of available talent. It is high time to ensure an inclusive decision-making. We need everybody on the deck.


In the public sector, we need to rethink the effectiveness of long-held policies. Thus, tapping into the whole talent pool, with a more diverse leadership, we will be more likely to find innovative solutions to the pressing and complex challenges we are facing. In the private sector, tapping into the under-exploited talent pool of qualified women can also give companies a competitive edge.


Bolder and more decisive action is needed.


The cost of inaction cannot be overlooked. The figures are staggering: if labour force participation rates among women would reach those of men, we could boost annual global GDP by 12% in OECD countries over the next 20 years.


Women are the most underutilized economic asset in our societies.



Gender equality remains one of the most universal challenges to inclusion


The evidence from OECD countries is compelling. While women’s overall participation has been increasing in public and private sectors, the disparities between men and women increase as one climbs the organisational ladder.


The number of women in high-level decision-making posts still remains too low, with improving averages hiding wide disparities.


Only 34% of the highest-ranking civil servants were women in 2015. It has improved regarding women in lower houses of parliament, with an increase from 20.6% of seats in 2002 to 28.6% in 2015 in OECD countries. Some countries, like Sweden (44%) and Mexico (42%) are leading, while some are lagging behind, like Hungary and Japan, with barely 10% of women in parliament.


But the representation of women in ministerial positions at the central/federal level is also limited in the OECD, with about 29.3% of ministers on average in 2015. Here again, the average hides wide disparity, with numbers going from much less than 10 % in Greece and Turkey to more than 50 % in Norway and Sweden.


In the EU, women made up 37% of seats among members of supreme courts in 2014, from less than 10% in UK and Portugal to more than 50 % in Luxemburg, Hungary and Slovak Republic.


The situation is particularly worrisome at the pinnacle of public decision making. We had only 10 women serving as Head of Government in the world in 2015 (7.3%).


In the largest companies, women account for 41% of the workforce, but only for 19% of executive level positions and for 12% of board seats. Women hold less than 5% of CEO positions and less than a quarter of senior management roles in S&P 500 firms.


These numbers are a strong wake-up call, showing that progress cannot be taken for granted.  We need targeted measures to ensure sustained progress until we reach effective gender parity.


The barriers to women’s access to top positions are manifold and for the most part common to both public and corporate sectors. They include prevailing gender stereotypes and unconscious biases, institutions that are not adjusted to women’s and men’s differentiated needs, limited flexible working arrangements, inter alia.


When such policies are established, we still need incentives to ensure that they are being effectively used at all levels. In addition, monitoring and accountability mechanisms are necessary to keep gender issues in the spotlight and sustain change.



Progress is being made but an implementation gap remains


OECD countries are increasingly implementing policy measures to boost women’s full participation at the top. These measures include affirmative and targeted policies, disclosure requirements, strengthening transparency, monitoring and accountability, mentoring schemes and flexible working arrangements by capitalising on ICTs.


In the private sector, companies are realising some bottom-line payoffs to flexible working arrangements in terms of management practices and higher stock valuations.


To fill the gender gap at the top, our revised G20/OECD Principles of Corporate Governance encourage measures that enhance gender diversity on boards and in senior management, including voluntary targets, quotas, or disclosure requirements.


Today’s discussions will highlight some of these good practices and lessons learnt. Yet the use of such measures remains scarce and uneven across countries. There is a pressing need to fill this implementation gap.



The OECD has a broad portfolio of tools to support advances in gender equality


In this context, the adoption of our new Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life is timely. It was very much welcomed by Ministers as a core aspect of the inclusive growth agenda at our Public Governance Ministerial Meeting in October 2015.


This new Recommendation brings forward policy options to boost equal access to public life, including politics, judiciaries, and public administrations for women and men from diverse backgrounds. This is particularly important as the public sector is expected to serve as the role model for society and the economy to achieve a more inclusive growth.


The Recommendation also focuses on gender equality delivery mechanisms to ensure effective implementation and impact. It promotes a government-wide strategy for gender equality reform, sound mechanisms to ensure accountability and sustainability of gender initiatives, and tools and evidence to inform policy decisions.


We must ensure that the resources that we use are well-targeted and achieve their intended impact, and promote a “whole-of-society” approach to reduce gender stereotypes, encourage women to participate in politics and remove implicit and explicit barriers impeding gender equality.


Beyond generating benchmarks and policy tools, the OECD’s contribution is to shape the public policy debate. For example, we have been instrumental in the adoption by the G20 of a target of reducing the gender gap in labour participation by 25% by 2025.


We will co-organise the Women in Parliaments Global Summit in Amman, Jordan, on 4-5 May 2016. Parliamentarians from all over the world will come together to discuss a range of topics from education and health to peace, underpinned by a gender perspective.


I am convinced that today’s discussion on ‘’what works’’ will give new depth and breadth to the policy debates, building on lessons learned from both the public and the corporate sectors.


We must all scale up our efforts to reduce the gender gap for good and drive a truly inclusive economic growth. Together, we can design, develop and deliver better gender policies for better lives.


Thank you.




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