The secret to getting more women to the top could be giving fathers more time off

By Jena McGregor

The most surprising was the link the study found between countries that offer paternity leave and their prevalence of women in power. Photo / iStock
The most surprising was the link the study found between countries that offer paternity leave and their prevalence of women in power. Photo / iStock

A huge study released this week in the United States reveals yet more unsettling statistics about the low numbers of women in leadership jobs. In the report, the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the consulting firm EY found that nearly 60 percent of the almost 22,000 companies around the globe examined in its giant sample had no women on the board of directors, and more than 50 percent had no top female executives.

And like many studies that examine the low numbers of women in leadership, it found a link between the percentage of women in the top ranks and the company's performance, especially those in C-suite roles. Companies with top management teams that are at least 30 percent female could add six percentage points to their net margin, the study found.

But this report went further, attempting to provide some potential answers for what kinds of policy issues might help explain higher numbers of women at the top.

Some were obvious: Countries with less discriminatory viewpoints on women, for example, saw more women at the top.

When women have it better than men at work

Others were more telling: Those with higher relative scores for women versus men on math tests, for instance, were correlated with more women in powerful roles. (And of particular note this year: Countries with a higher percentage of female political leaders were not correlated with those that had more female business leaders.)

But perhaps the most surprising was the link the study found between countries that offer paternity leave and their prevalence of women in power. It showed that giving fathers more time off is tied to having more women at the top: The top 10 countries, the report said, had 11 times more paternity leave days than those in the bottom 10.

Even more intriguing is that countries with mandated maternity leave benefits were not linked with a greater share of women at the top, while more paternity leave was strongly correlated with the percentage of women on boards. The report's authors are careful to note the relationship doesn't mean one is causing the other. But they write that "it stands to reason that policies that allow childcare needs to be met but do not place the burden of care explicitly on women increase the chances that women can build the business acumen and professional contacts necessary" to gain more seats on the board.

That's a pretty compelling finding in today's world, as companies rush to offer increasingly generous maternity leaves to their young female employees. A growing number of progressive companies are rolling out gender-neutral "parental" leaves, where moms or dads can both take off months at a time. Even so some have expanded their maternity leave while still offering less time off for new dads.

It's not the first time a study has revealed the possible shortcomings of boosting the amount of maternity leave women get. The consulting firm Mercer surveyed 164 organizations about their human resources practices and received access to internal employee data, allowing them to track women's careers in each firm. It found that those that had paid maternity leaves had more female employees. But their route to the top proceeded at a slower pace.

The problem, Mercer explained at the time, was that companies get complacent, thinking that offering the benefit is enough. Meanwhile, stigmas against women who take long leaves could continue to play a role.

When women take a long time away - but fathers aren't offered the same option - it helps reinforce the idea that women will do more at home, setting up the sort of routine and expectations that drive overwhelmed women to leave the workforce. It creates a discrepancy between how long new mothers and new fathers take a leave from the office, disadvantaging women who lose out on opportunities while they're away.

And when managers know one might be out for a few months, while the other might only step out for a few days, it can create a different way of looking at those who might get promoted or assigned plum assignments. To get ahead, women don't necessarily need more time off. They need men to get it off too, helping to level the opportunities for everyone.

- Washington Post

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