Saadia Zahidi discusses the changing role of women in today’s society

Since 2012, two publications have generated tremendous debate about the role of highly skilled women in the economy and society. The Atlantic magazine published Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, and Sheryl Sandberg’s new book is called Lean In.

Simply put, Slaughter argues that women are not getting an even playing field from businesses and governments, and that women do not necessarily want to aim for leadership positions given their societal expectations and pressures. Sandberg, on the other hand, argues that women need to “lean in”, which is her term for exercising more control in areas where they have leverage, asking for more opportunities and speaking up.

Both assertions present an important element of the current situation. Relative to the course of history in which women have often played a subordinate part, the recent changes in the role of women have taken place at an astonishingly rapid rate – and organizations, society and women themselves have not always kept pace with these changes.

One hundred years ago, around the time of the first International Women’s Day in 1911, the women’s movement in much of Europe and North America was still focused on women’s suffrage. Some 50 years ago, a revolution began in women’s education, which has resulted today in women making up more than half of university graduates in most developed countries. Subsequently, women’s economic integration deepened, and over the past 30 years in particular, women have entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

Family structures and societal attitudes have not kept pace for single or married women, who are still expected to be primarily responsible for the home, and carers for children, the elderly and other family dependents. In business, organizational structures, such as hiring and retention, have also not adapted well, and despite several decades of women’s entry into corporate structures, there is a persistent dearth of women in leadership positions in most of the world’s largest companies. Finally, government policy on taxation, maternal and paternal leave, and availability of childcare – areas that determine the division of labour at home vs the division of labour at work – has started to catch up only very recently.

Therefore, the expectations that women developed about being able to have it all were not met as organizational structures and policy changed sluggishly. No wonder women feel overstretched and there is a growing sense that trying to have it all is not worth the effort. “Good” became “good enough”. This is where Sandberg’s message is a timely reminder, to young women in particular, that their efforts to lean in are necessary and may be rewarded with more success than previous generations.

Yet this cannot happen without adding a third element to this binary debate. It is imperative that businesses and governments accelerate the pace of their own changes and fully recognize that there is self-interest for them to do so. Research indicates that companies that integrate more women across the full spectrum of their hierarchies reap a diversity dividend. There is also data showing the positive relationship between closing gender gaps and increased country competitiveness. And yet many businesses in the developed world are still functioning with structures designed decades ago, at a time when gender roles were clearly segregated between home and work. Similarly, government policy in much of the developed world, with the exception of Nordic countries, still does not maximize efficiency for women and men in balancing the demands of home and work.

Women certainly need to take responsibility for their own success in the workplace, but organizations and governments need to ensure that this success is an achievable target for all those who want it. It would be detrimental to our economies, business performance and women themselves if there was any reversal or deceleration in the structural changes needed for gender parity.

Author: Saadia Zahidi is a Senior Director, Head of the Women Leaders & Gender Parity Programme, at the World Economic Forum