“If they don’t give you a seat at the table bring a folding chair”

-Shirley Chisholm

Progress does not happen when a society sits by idly. 

Women’s progress in the workplace, family life, and the world in general only marches on when we all actively participate. 

It requires courage to think outside the box and break the status quo by introducing new ideas and initiatives to empower women worldwide. 

Some of these initiatives will be industry-specific, some must include individuals from all walks of life, and some will be a product of their time.

The world saw how COVID-19 changed workplace dynamics and had varying impacts on groups worldwide. The key to progress is flexibility and adaptability.

And the reality is that only some initiatives will work. But that is part of the process. Progress is not linear, and it takes many attempts by all members of society to find the right path forward. 

To find out which initiatives have been successful, which have not worked, and how the trade, treasury, and payments (TTP) industry can support women in the workplace, Trade Finance Global (TFG) held a Women in Trade roundtable discussion with female leaders in the TTP.

Gender tokenism – how genuine efforts lead to genuine results

Simply going through the motions of highlighting women in the workplace will not produce results. 

One roundtable participant said, “when a woman is invited to speak because you’re a woman rather than because you’re the expert, it can reinforce a negative stereotype.”

These types of “gender-tokenism” efforts are examples of companies that want to check the box instead of supporting female experts in their field. 

Often, there is lots of public communication around these initiatives or speeches, but “what lacks is the follow through.”

One participant said, “You need to see a genuine leadership commitment to have gender parity, to implement a gender diversity approach through all levels of the organisation, including at the leadership level. 

Because if employees see only males in those senior positions, they won’t buy into the organisation’s strategy.”

A way to start this process is by “allowing women to have their voices heard in the same way men do.”

Quotas: Is there a correct answer?

It is well-accepted that gender equity is not progressing at an acceptable speed. The WEF’s Global Gender Report shows that, at our current pace, we will not reach gender equity for another 132 years. 

Implementing quotas into hiring practices is a long-standing and controversial idea to increase the speed of this process.

Even amongst TFG’s roundtable, opinions were divided about using quotas to enforce gender diversity amongst teams within the TTP space.

One participant, who does not support quotas, said a colleague told her, “I’ve got here on my merit, and actually, that was much harder for me. The last thing I want is for somebody to think that I’ve got to this position to tick a box or to fulfil some statistic.”

But another speaker said data regarding gender, racial, and sexual orientation representation shows a different picture.

Another roundtable member said, “Every time somebody talks about women in corporate boardrooms, where’s that number? We’re down at the bottom. Every time they talk about women in senior positions, we’re down at the bottom. Every time we talk about black people, minorities, people from the underserved or LGBTQ+ community, we’re down at the bottom.” 

Ultimately, there was a consensus that if quotas are not the way forward, companies need to use data to track gender statistics and create “specific goals and conscious efforts to be more inclusive and give women a fair opportunity.”

Using data to drive conversation and force action can be the catalyst for real change. One participant said you don’t need to implement quotas to force change. “If executives don’t achieve agreed-upon goals, they don’t get their bonuses!”

Elevating women’s role in decision-making roles

A theme that arose in the roundtable is that not everything is black and white, things often are nuanced. A male was recently appointed as president of a prominent international organisation. How did the roundtable attendees feel about this?

“I think he is going to be terrific, he was the best person for the job.”

Importantly, numerous women on the search committee were involved in the entire process. The key is creating a company-wide culture of inclusion and understanding. 

“Women in those leadership positions are important in sending a signal throughout the organisation, not only to employees internally but to external stakeholders.”

The impact of COVID-19 on women’s progress

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how the world works, which has benefits and negatives. 

On the one hand, studies have shown that women-dominated industries were more adversely affected by the pandemic compared to male-dominated industries and that gender pay has increased since 2020. 

On the other, workplace flexibility is making it easier for women to balance a work-life balance. Mothers can now care for their children with less concern about interrupting their careers. 

Yet, this may have a negative impact on women as well. Studies have shown that women have increased their percentage of childcare since the onset of COVID-19.

Figure 1: Estimated increase in weekly hours on childcare during COVID-19, by sex. Source: Ipsos poll fielded 22-25 October 2020. UN Women

However, the panel noted that this conversation changes when discussing women in developing countries.

One roundtable participant said, “COVID-19 did some really difficult things for women in developing countries, notably with the digital divide.

Kids who weren’t at school and so talented young girls didn’t have access to computers couldn’t just go to school virtually.”

According to UNICEF in January 2022, more than 616 million students remained affected by full or partial school closures. In low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70% of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53% pre-pandemic.

This type of discussion between industry experts in both developed and developing countries can help build sustainable and fruitful connections. While women face different challenges depending on their careers, family status and region, promoting women is a unified global effort.

Equity at large: how to involve all women

Empowering women is a task that involves every member of society; women, men, girls, and boys. 

At TFG’s Women in TPP event 2023, “pass it along” was a unanimously agreed motto by the participants.

For men, it starts with accountability. 

One participant said, “We discussed gender partnerships with women and men. Men becoming allies. Men must step up and be brave enough to call out the behaviour of those around them. It shouldn’t be the women doing all that work; men need to come forward.”

Additionally, the TTP industry must actively reach out, support, and inject capital into women-led enterprises. 

One roundtable attendee said that she had a client who worked for a sizeable export-oriented firm. In the ten years at this company, the client had never received a call from a male bank executive. 

Proactive outreach is vital to making women feel welcomed and included in the workplace.

But to truly reach society as a whole, one participant said education is the biggest key. The attendee said that women in developed and developing countries all need access to better education. 

“The next generation needs to be the focus”

The march towards gender parity starts with all of us, from CEOs of global institutions to local hospitality workers, to school teachers. Without a unified effort, gender parity might take another 132.