Best countries for professional women

Is Sweden the best country for professional women?

If you’re a professional woman, ambitious, value a work-life balance but feel there’s something lacking in your life, you’d be best off looking for a job in Sweden. The Nordic countries – Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – consistently rank highest in studies and surveys about the best places in the world for women to live and work.

While these five appear to have got it right, gender imbalance in the rest of the world, developed and developing, is a massive issue, despite the fact that multiple academic studies show that companies with more women on their boards and in their senior management teams out-perform those run by only males.

Yet the percentage worldwide of companies with female board directors is tiny. A study by Catalyst Inc. Knowledge Center revealed that countries with more than 20% of company board seats held by women included Norway, Finland, Sweden and Great Britain. Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and South Africa all came into the 10-20% bracket. Fewer than 5% of board seats were held by women in, not surprisingly, most Middle Eastern countries but also China, Chile, India and Russia.

Senior and middle managers

The picture is different at senior and middle-management level, as opposed to board level. A report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2015 showed that the countries with the highest percentage of female senior and middle managers were Dominican Republic (55.8%), Panama, Latvia, Ecuador and the Philippines (41%). The UK came in at 32.2%.

In Jamaica, surprisingly, just under 60% of middle managers are female, compared to Pakistan, where it’s 3%. But cultural factors skew these figures, so these high-ranking countries are not necessarily the best places for women to work; they’re simply, in some cases, countries where women are more inclined to go out to work to support their families while men, culturally, are prone to laziness.

The gender pay gap

Another factor to take into account in the quest for gender equality is the speed of change in achieving it. In the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Report, the countries making the fastest progress in closing the gender gap were, again, Nordic: Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden. The UK had actually slipped two places in the rankings, while the USA had dropped 17 places, closing its gender gap slower than Argentina, Belarus, Cuba and Rwanda.

The future of equality in the workplace

Such is the glacial pace of change worldwide that one estimate by the World Economic Forum concludes that it will take 81 years to achieve equality in the workplace. There are still so many barriers to women advancing professionally; cultural prejudices aside, factors include childcare, macho corporate cultures, few female role models, company policy regarding maternity and paternity leave, inadequate gender equality policies in the workplace, lack of flexible working hours and lack of leadership training for women.

It seems there’s not just a global glass ceiling, but glass walls as well. One of the points raised by the ILO report was that women are not sufficiently exposed to different functions within a company and tend to end up clustered in HR departments, public relations and customer service rather than management, R&D and sales.

What can companies do to retain and promote more women? In the EU, women are at least protected by anti-discrimination laws in recruitment. But there is more to be done in mentoring, exposing women to all functions of a company, not just the stereotypical ‘feminine’ roles, training, job flexibility and implementing sexual harassment policies. One of the factors common to all the high-scoring Nordic countries is support for the family – generous maternity and paternity leave and a culture that accepts flexible working.

In fact, for women themselves, it’s quality of life that matters as much as equal rights. Yet another study, the ‘World’s Best Countries for Women’, released earlier this year by BAV Consulting and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, based its rankings on human rights, gender equality, income equality, perceptions of safety and progressiveness of society. Sweden, Denmark and Norway occupied the top three spots, with the Netherlands fourth and Canada fifth. No surprises there, then.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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