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26 January 2017

Disrupting the status quo of gender roles

Interestingly, of the last three overseas flights that I’ve taken, two of the pilots have been female.

Back in November when the female captain announced herself, the male stranger sitting beside me looked at me puzzled and said “I didn’t know that women could be pilots”. I think I was too shocked to respond.  Thankfully, last Friday evening whilst returning from London the somewhat younger male gentleman sitting beside me didn’t seem to react at all when the female captain announced herself.

Well, not until, that is, the captain completed a go-around, which is an aborted landing at final approach.

Then he seemed to automatically look at me and say “female pilots” with a sighing expression. This time I didn’t hold my tongue and replied “I very much doubt that happened because the pilot is female”. About three minutes later she apologised for the sudden go-around on speaker, explaining there was an aircraft with technical problems sitting on the runway that couldn’t be cleared in time for us to land. I’ll admit the man in the seat beside me was the recipient of a somewhat jarring stare from guess who after this announcement.

What struck a chord with me was the blatant outdated views and stereotypes about women. Of course women can be pilots, and furthermore of course they can be excellent pilots. This personal frustration all seemed a bit serendipitous as it was only last Wednesday, 18 January, that Bob Moritz, Global Chairman, PwC, sat on a panel at Davos entitled ‘Disrupting the status quo of gender roles’.

During this panel Bob had the privilege of sitting beside some amazing female leaders, by way of the International Monetary Funds’s Christine LaGarde, entrepreneur Cynthia Castro, Panama’s vice president Isabel Saint Malo, and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.  All of whom along with Bob are determined to close the gender gap. It was a fantastic, robust and extremely powerful discussion. You can watch it here.

During the panel Bob Moritz voiced that gender equality is an issue for everybody, and that to make change disruptive leadership is required.  He also followed up his time on the panel by sharing a blog in which he reaffirmed that this is an issue we are committed to at PwC, and based on our efforts so far, he shared his top six strategies for disrupting institutional inertia around gender roles. You can read it here.

One of those six strategies is to challenge negative stereotypes. Ultimately stressing that we can all do our part by highlighting outdated stereotypes and reinforcing the realities of the modern workforce. “Stay-at-home dad,” for example, should raise no eyebrows. We can also help dismantle stereotypes with facts. And given my recent flying experiences I’d like to use this blog to focus on this a little bit further.

The sad truth is, that depending where you are in the world, there continues to be many outdated gender stereotypes that continue to have a negative influence both consciously and unconsciously on women across all forms of work institutions. It is important that we all play a part to highlight that these are outdated stereotypes, that gender roles are shifting, and that we reinforce the realities and personal and professional expectations of the modern workforce in order to debunk and depower the impact of such stereotypes.

For example, outdated stereotypes and the realities that debunk them, such as:

Women are not as qualified as men:
Female levels of workforce participation have never been higher and female enrolment in education has increased almost twice as fast as male enrolment since 1970. Globally, women now account for a majority of students in 93 countries while men are favoured in only 46, earn more bachelors’ degrees than men and have an edge over men of 56 to 44% in masters’ degrees.

Women are not career focused:
PwC’s research The female millennial: A new era of talent which surveyed over 9,000 female millennials (born 1980-95) from over 70 countries identifies that women are highly career ambitious, and that like their male counterparts, they rank opportunities for career progression as the most attractive employer trait. 

Men are the primary earner:
This same PwC research identified that the earning power and patterns of women in the workplace have also very much evolved. Eighty six per cent of female millennials that are in a relationship are part of a dual career couple. Furthermore, 42% of those earn equal salaries to their partner or spouse while almost one quarter are the primary earner in their relationships (24%). This means, 66% of female millennials earn equal to or more than their partner or spouse. Interestingly, as female millennials become more career experienced, the higher the likelihood they will earn more than their partner or spouse: 18% in first three years of their career compared with 31% with 9 or more years’ experience.

Women, in particular mothers, do not want to undertake international experience:
Research by Catalyst indicates that international experiences accelerates male and female careers further and faster yet the best and brightest female talent are being overlooked for these opportunities compared to their male peers. Women currently only make up 20% of the global mobility population despite unprecedented levels of female demand for international experience. In fact 71% of female millennials globally said they want to work abroad during their careers. Interestingly, PwC’s Moving women with purpose research identifies that women, men and global mobility executives all identify that ‘women with children do not want to undertake international assignments’ as a top barrier to greater levels of female representation in global mobility.


However, 41% of mothers compared with 40% of fathers indicated they want to undertake a global mobility experience. Interestingly, the mobility expectations of mothers and fathers is very different to their mobility realities. Forty per cent of men who had undertaken mobility in our research were fathers, compared with only 17% of women being mothers. This begs the question – it is clear that mobility demand from mums and dads is equal – so why are more mothers not getting these opportunities in reality?

We are challenged with a leaking pipeline of female talent that is limiting female progression towards leadership, because women leave work to care for their families:
There is a common and damaging assumption that the reason women form almost equal numbers of employers’ talent populations, yet decreasing numbers as you move up the seniority levels is because at a certain point, women opt out of their careers to have families.

In fact, over 9,000 female millennials from across the globe indicate that the top reason they have left or are considering leaving a former employer is because of a lack of opportunities for career progression.

Historically, at PwC, there was also a general perception that we needed to fix our leaking pipeline of female talent by driving programmes focused on the retention of women and that supported new mothers. However, when we applied rigorous analytics the data in fact revealed that: 1) Across the network, our women leave more than men at our most junior grades only – and at this point in their lives very few of these women are at the stage of starting a family. And, 2) at all other grades, our men actually leave more than our women. But we were replacing both our male and female leavers with predominately male experienced hires. This data-driven approach enabled us to debunk a common myth: that the equal gender representation at the graduate hire stage was not reflected at the top because, at some point during their career, our women were leaving to have families. In response to this insight, we have switched from a strategy focused on staunching a leaking pipeline of female talent, to an approach today under which we have identified diverse experienced hires as a critical KPI for global D&I acceleration. You can learn more about this learning and our approach in The PwC diversity journey.

Overall, the evidence is clear: in a nutshell, it is highly unlikely employers are faced with a leaking female pipeline because their female talent are opting out of their careers to have families.

Flexibility is a female or parental issue only:
PwC’s millennial research finds that while only 29% of millennials are married and 24% have children, 97% of both male and female millennials said that work life balance was important to them. Interestingly, “My work and personal life are out of balance. I want a role with more flexibility” was ranked as the second most likely reason for potentially leaving an employer; by both male and female millennials. With 41% of male millennials saying this was the case versus 37% of female millennials. Meanwhile, 44% of female millennials compared with 49% of male said they believe taking advantage of work-life balance and flexibility programmes has negative consequences at their workplace, and 63% of men and 50% of women said that while work life balance and flexibility programmes exist in their organisations they are not readily available to all.

Demand for flexibility and work life balance is talent wide, and comes from both men and women, and those who are and are not parents.

I hope that if you are reading this blog, you have perhaps learnt something new, but most of all that you feel inspired and empowered to disrupt the status quo and challenge negative gender stereotypes.


Aoife Flood, PwC Based in Dublin, Ireland, Aoife Flood is Senior Manager of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Programme Office for PwC International Limited with responsibility for the development and implementation of our network-wide global Diversity & Inclusion strategy.

She is a proud PwC female millennial and lead researcher and author of our ‘Moving women with purpose: Creating gender inclusive global mobility’, ‘The female millennial: A new era of talent’, and 'Next Generation Diversity: Developing tomorrow's female leaders' thought leadership publications.

Aoife is also co-author of our Global Gender Agenda blog. You can learn more about Aoife here or find her on twitter: @AoifeRFlood.


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