The selection of women leaders to any global organisation is still rare enough to make headlines when it happens. Jane Fraser at Citi, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the World Trade Organization and Doreen Bogdan-Martin at the International Telecommunication Union are a few recent examples. 

Their numbers are slowly growing, which raises the question – if having more inclusive leadership teams is important, where were these women before?

Which institutions appoint women (and which don’t)? 

Back in 2020, before these particular appointments, we wondered whether global organisations followed their own advice by appointing more diverse senior leaders. We focused on multilaterals like the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions (IMF, WB, WTO), but the results are common across all global institutions, including regional organizations. 

While there has been positive progress in growing the proportion of women employees globally, in organisations in our sample (we looked at about 129 key global and regional institutions) there was no parity in appointed or elected leaders.

For the average institution, over 30 years spanning 1990-2020 women had been appointed only in every 4th case – out of 624 possible appointments, only 158 resulted in the selection of a woman. But even this overstates the actual situation, as nearly half of the sample had never appointed any women at any time in the past. 

Indeed – women were persistently being appointed to the same institutions, with 84% of women appointments happening in just 30 (out of 129) institutions. 

Breaking this down, we can see that there are certain types of institutions which have appointed multiple women leaders over the years. Such “anchoring” of women in a subset of institutions led to every third institution never having had any women leaders. 

Turns out, hard science or politically “charged” institutions were among the ones that have never had a woman leader.

Is the candidate pool the source of the problem?

One clear message from the data was that when women are present in the candidate pool, they are likely to be the selected winner. However, there is a catch here – candidate pools for top positions in multilateral organisations are often determined by the member states, over which the institution itself has little to no control. 

With a history of no women appointees in some institutions, member states may strategically nominate only male candidates, anticipating that a woman will not be elected. 

These preordained outcomes of (not) nominating women illustrate why there should be a commotion every time a woman is elected – bringing attention to the issue would signal a shift in both expectations about who is an appropriate leader and would reward institutions for recognising that.

Do women leaders bring gender equality within organisations?

Once a woman is appointed or elected head of an organisation, questions begin about what impact that has. Do they, for example, implement policies that result in the organisations themselves becoming more equal? 

Based on the data on staff composition in over 30 UN organisations, the answer is no. Appointing a woman leader doesn’t automatically improve overall gender equality in staffing, at least at first.  

An interesting caveat is that once there is a second woman appointed as head, equality of staffing does in fact improve. This means that institutions that appoint women heads multiple times are more likely to have a more gender-diverse workforce than those that appoint one woman once. 

2 ways trade finance can use this information to increase the frequency of women leaders

Trade finance has the double whammy of being a combination of two male-dominated fields – trade and finance. 

A number of trade publications have awards for women in trade finance, which suggests that the industry has recognised the need to promote women leaders’ successes. But is this enough? 

Our research suggests that if trade finance is truly interested in increasing the number of women leaders in the industry, there are several steps financial institutions and fintechs might consider taking. 

  • Be deliberate about your candidate pool. This is an activity that the private sector has much more control over than international institutions. There is no reason that a candidate pool should not include diverse candidates. 
  • Cultivate and mentor your existing staff. Finance is a relatively closed sector, staff often move among many different banks over the course of their careers. This means that it is in the interest of the entire financial sector to identify and mentor high achievers. It will benefit the entire community. This is particularly important for trade finance where attracting and motivating younger staff can be a challenge. 

To maximise the benefits of having a woman leader, don’t stop at one. The cascade of positive impacts from a women leader starts when it is clear they are not a token appointment. 

Read the full paper here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/politics-and-gender/article/abs/beating-the-odds-womens-leadership-in-international-organizations/5281A775D3F7379042AB281CC1B3E051