A woman carries an umbrella while walking past the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S. (Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg)

Women's Prospects for Pay and Board Equality Are Getting Worse

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(Bloomberg) -- The United Nations first recognized International Women’s Day in 1975, sparking 38 years of annual demonstrations, private and public proclamations and a general recognition that even in the modern era, gender equality has a long way to go.

More recently, the day has been an opportunity to consider how much has changed, which is especially apt in 2018 as the #MeToo movement continues to expose sexual harassment and misconduct. Nevertheless, this year’s slew of reports are sobering as they suggest backsliding for women’s economic empowerment and for women in business.

The World Economic Forum now estimates global pay parity is a century away, an increase from about 80 years in 2016 -- in part because the path for women to the most highly paid jobs is less clear. Executive teams globally slipped to being just 24 percent women from 25 percent in the most recent year, according to Grant Thornton. And among new CEO hires globally, less than 4 percent went to women in 2016, professional services firm PwC said.

In the U.S. and in the U.K., there’s even more bad news. The number of women CEOs at the largest U.S. companies will slip to 24 from 27, according to Catalyst, which tracks diversity in companies. Among the 92 largest companies in the U.K., 6.5 percent had women CEOs, a dip from 7.8 percent in 2016, according to executive recruiter Egon Zehnder.

Contributing to the now-century long wait women have for pay equality, progress to close that gap over the last 10 years fell to the slowest since weekly earnings data was first compiled in 1979, and is half as much as it was in the previous 10 years, according to data released this week by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

There is some slightly better news, though. Equality in the boardroom might be possible by 2048 in the U.S., according to researcher Equilar. The number of new directors being appointed to boards who are women might hit 50 percent by 2032, per executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. But even a less ambitious goal of 30 percent women on boards of a select group of larger companies isn’t likely before 2028, according to researcher MSCI.

Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, warns that these numbers are only a snapshot in time, and not necessarily a prediction of the future pace forward, or backward. “The focus on numbers doesn’t tell you how much you should care about this in the first place and, if you do care about it, what it is you should do about it,” he said. "There’s no reason in particular to expect the future will be exactly like the past."

He compared the data to debt clocks, which try to show a long string of quickly changing numbers to raise awareness of the growing U.S. debt, without really giving any sense of economics or solutions. The debate about how best to fix the gender gap often is much less clear cut than the top-line data suggests, he said.

“It sort of obscures the interesting questions,” Portes said.

To draw more attention to gender disparities, Catalyst signed up 34 companies across 10 cities in five countries to use window lighting to display the universal female symbol, the circle with a cross, on more than 30 buildings on the eve of International Women’s Day. The buildings will remain lit up throughout today.

"The data is the clear cut facts that say ’we are seeing change, but we’ve got a long way to go and here’s the facts that demonstrate why we really need to focus,’" said Deborah Gillis, CEO of researcher Catalyst. "To me that’s the power of the data, in keeping it, frankly, in the face of business leaders so they can’t ignore what’s really going on in the corporate world."

But the slow-moving nature of the data, unveiled every year at this tine, may risk exactly that, warned Michael Yassa, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. People will begin to ignore information they think they’ve heard before, or be easily distracted by other news or events.

"If there is an abundance of information about a particular topic, the brain gets used to it and can have a tendency to start tuning it out," Yassa said in an interview. "Evolutionarily speaking, that is because once information is learned, there is no pressure to continue learning it. It is de-prioritized in favor of new information. That is why novelty always seems to attract more attention."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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