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How demographics can help women break the glass ceiling

A demonstrator protests on International Women's Day in 2013. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty)

A demonstrator protests violence against women on International Women's Day in 2013.(Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty)

Women around the world face an uphill battle beating men to leadership roles in the workplace, but that might be about to change, according to a leading global women’s professional organisation.

Populations worldwide are ageing. That means the active labour force is expected to drop significantly over the next few years in economic superpowers such as China, Russia and Canada, said Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit organisation focused on expanding opportunities for women and business.

These demographic shifts mean more opportunities  will open up for women, who have previously been held back in multiple countries by everything from old-boy-networks to institutionalised workforce restrictions and even inequalities enshrined in law, Catalyst said in its report, released ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March.

“Societies with ageing populations… could provide numerous opportunities for women and girls to more fully engage in the labour force,” said Catalyst.

(Graphic by Catalyst.org)

(Graphic by Catalyst.org)

In Japan, 32 % of its populace is 60-years-old or older. China’s workforce is expected to contract in 2015, and by 2020 some countries, including Russia, will have fewer people entering the workforce than entering retirement, Catalyst said.

Clearing the path

To open the door for women to snag promotions or take the helm of global companies, governments, societies and businesses must make room for change, said Deborah Gillis, President and chief executive officer of Catalyst.

“Women can change the world, but empowerment is a two-way street,“ Gillis said.

In some cases, the path is already clearing, said Susan Stautberg, chief executive officer of Women Corporate Directors, a global organisation of women who serve on corporate boards. But the change has had to be mandated.

In some cases, the path is already clearing, said Susan Stautberg, chief executive officer of Women Corporate Directors, a global organisation of women who serve on corporate boards. But the change has had to be mandated.

Nations that require companies to have a certain number of women on their boards have seen a dramatic uptick in women’s leadership, she said. “In France the number of women on boards doubled in one year,” she said. 

The percentage of women on French corporate boards had risen to 25% in 2012, from about 13% in 2010, after the country passed legislation demanding that all publicly listed companies have more women on their boards. 

(Graphic by Catalyst.org. Source: Booz & Co.)

(Graphic by Catalyst.org. Source: Booz & Co.)

If companies add women to their leadership ranks, their business could benefit, as well as women’s advancement, she said.  “As companies compete with everyone, everywhere, they need the best talent — not their best friends — on the board,” said Stautberg. “You need to have the best ideas to compete.”

Yet there is a long way to go. Globally, women make up just 24% of senior management roles, but the G7 group of nations, which includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, reached only 21%, said Catalyst.