Equal rights have been an issue for many years. Women are still underrepresented in leadership positions and certain sectors such as the chemical industry. This is why Merck is taking various measures to strengthen the role of women within the company, even though a great deal has happened in the past few years. I believe that the new opportunities arising from the future of work in particular offer great potential in terms of equal rights.
Still plenty of room for improvement
In 2018 the U.S. scientist Frances Hamilton Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Among the 181 individuals to have received the prize thus far, she is only the fifth woman – a clear indication that women continue to be underrepresented in the chemical industry. Although just as many women as men are now being awarded PhDs in chemistry, in the top positions of science and research women are still a rarity.
In the world of business, too, there is room for improvement. Particularly at the executive level, women in the chemical industry occupy such positions much less often than men. At Merck, with women currently making up 44% of the entire workforce, we have a fairly good gender balance. However, we too have some catching up to do regarding women in leadership positions. At present, 32% of our management positions are held by women. In global comparisons, however, this still puts us three percentage points above the average. In any case, we will continue to work on offering women in all positions and across all our business sectors the same opportunities for job advancement as men.
Increasing the proportion of women in senior leadership is not merely a matter of fairness, but also of good economic sense. A 2018 study published by McKinsey, for instance, showed a significant correlation between a more diverse leadership team and business performance. In a comparison of over one thousand companies, the management consulting firm found that those companies with a higher proportion of women in executive roles were more likely to outperform on profitability. So how can we open the door further for women managers and increase representation of women in leadership positions?
The future of work as a great opportunity
Long career breaks for child care are still considered the main reason for the underrepresentation of women in leadership positions – a competitive disadvantage that today can be counteracted in a number of ways. With the advance of digitalization, for instance, working outside of the office is becoming increasingly common; working remote as well as from home has long been technically feasible and opens up a new realm of possibilities for employees. Moreover, the hours that employees clock up at the office, which in the past may have increased their chances of being promoted, are now fading into insignificance.
However, the benefits of the modern world of work to achieve equal rights are not just due to new digital technologies. We are currently also experiencing a cultural change towards more flexible working models, flatter hierarchies and a more participative style of leadership. Today we work in a flexible and agile environment in which we must manage complexity, establish networks and collaboratively shape processes together with our employees. In the new world of work, leadership based on power and control no longer has the same degree of importance it had years ago. Instead, the focus is on communication and teamwork. It is precisely this change that is opening up new opportunities for female employees, since most women favor a horizontal style of communication and a participative leadership culture.
It’s all about the right tools
I am convinced that the future of work offers countless opportunities for women. At Merck we have achieved a great deal in this regard. Through flexible working models, for instance, we offer our employees a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing their working hours and location, and make it easier for women – but also men! – to reconcile the demands of having a career and raising children.
A further obstacle to achieving equal rights and opportunities is often the result of gender stereotypes and unconscious biases. Do men possess superior IT skills, while women are better HR managers? Hardly! In order to raise employee awareness for such unconscious biases and prevent any unfair treatment that may arise as a result, this year at Merck we introduced classroom and online training courses to educate our employees Group-wide on unconscious bias. In addition, we use an online tool, which is based on algorithms that help our recruiters to reduce unconscious biases as early on as the hiring process.
At Merck we also use talent development as a way of strengthening equal opportunities. Whether workshops, mentoring programs or women’s networks, we offer our high-performing female employees a broad range of services to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. At Merck we even have our own Diversity Council, which consists of senior managers from all business sectors and is responsible for implementing our strategy for greater diversity and inclusion.
It is now imperative to keep working towards this goal, and in particular to harness the opportunities of the future world of work to ensure that equal opportunities for men and women in economy and society do not simply remain a noble objective, but become a matter of course.
Panel discussion during the International Women’s Day 2019 at Merck