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Women's prospects for pay and board equality are actually getting worse

Women's prospects for pay and board equality are actually getting worse
General Motors Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra listens to speakers at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (EPA /Shutterstock)

The United Nations first recognized International Women’s Day in 1975, sparking 38 years of annual demonstrations, private and public proclamations and a general recognition that even in the modern era, gender equality has a long way to go.

More recently, that day, celebrated on March 8, has been an opportunity to consider how much has changed, which is especially apt in 2018 as the #MeToo movement continues to expose sexual harassment and misconduct. Nevertheless, this year’s slew of reports are sobering as they suggest backsliding for women’s economic empowerment and for women in business.

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The World Economic Forum now estimates global pay parity is being a century away, up from about 80 years in 2016 — in part because the path for women to the most highly paid jobs is less clear. Executive teams globally slipped to being just 24% women, from 25% in the most recent year, according to accounting and advisory firm Grant Thornton. And among new CEOs hired globally, less than 4% were women in 2016, professional services firm PwC said.

In the U.S. and in Britain, there’s even more bad news. The number of female CEOs at the largest U.S. companies will slip to 24, from 27, according to Catalyst, which tracks diversity in companies. Among the 92 largest companies in Britain, 6.5% had female CEOs, a dip from 7.8% in 2016, according to executive recruiter Egon Zehnder.

Contributing to the now-century-long wait women have for pay equality is that progress to close that gap over the last 10 years fell to the slowest since weekly earnings data were first compiled in 1979, and is half as much as it was in the previous 10 years, according to data released this week by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

There is some slightly better news, though. Equality in the boardroom might be possible by 2048 in the U.S., according to researcher Equilar. The number of female new directors being appointed to boards might hit 50% by 2032, according to executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. But even a less ambitious goal of 30% women on boards of a select group of larger companies isn’t likely before 2028, according to researcher MSCI.

Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, warns that these numbers are only a snapshot in time, and not necessarily a prediction of the future pace forward, or backward.

“The focus on numbers doesn’t tell you how much you should care about this in the first place and, if you do care about it, what it is you should do about it,” he said. "There’s no reason in particular to expect the future will be exactly like the past."

He compared the data to debt clocks, which try to show a long string of quickly changing numbers to raise awareness of the growing U.S. debt, without really giving any sense of economics or solutions. The debate about how best to fix the gender gap often is much less clear-cut than the top-line data suggest, he said.

“It sort of obscures the interesting questions,” Portes said.

Not everyone sees it that way. "The data is the clear-cut facts that say, ‘We are seeing change, but we’ve got a long way to go and here’s the facts that demonstrate why we really need to focus,’" said Deborah Gillis, CEO of researcher Catalyst. "To me that’s the power of the data, in keeping it, frankly, in the face of business leaders so they can’t ignore what’s really going on in the corporate world."

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