WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP: Boardroom dancing

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Despite having a head-start upon graduation, the number of women board members is still astoundingly small. Call it glass ceiling or sticky floor, women in Poland are less likely to get promoted beyond managerial level. And even if they do get to the top, their pay hardly ever reflects their position and responsibility. With more and more women’s organizations undertaking grassroots initiatives to close the wage gap and improve parity levels, questions remain whether companies on their own will ever make the change happen and what the role of men in the process should be


Women’s workplace equality issues in Polish firms are far from being black and white. On the one hand, they are gaining a stronger foothold in many industries that have thus far been considered predominantly male. According to the OECD’s “Glass ceiling index,” Poland ranked fourth among OECD countries in terms of women in managerial positions (40.2 percent vs. the OECD average of 37.1 percent).

“If we fight the fight to be noticed on our own, closing the wage gap would take us decades.”

The situation changes quite drastically, however, when we move up in the pecking order. While in Europe as a whole, 22.6 percent of board directors are female, Poland can only boast 15.2 percent of women directors, according to Deloitte’s 2017 study titled “Women in the boardroom. A Global Perspective.” Still, Poland is slightly ahead of the curve in term of female CEOs of listed companies, with 6.3 percent of women in charge of listed companies versus 5 percent for all European countries.

WIl--Stat-1The staggeringly small number of women at the top of the ladder is hard to reconcile with the numbers at entry level positions and at managerial level. “We start out on the career path with the majority of employees being women. At managerial level it is still more or less 50-50, but then when we get to partner, numbers drop to about 20 percent,” said Tomasz Konik, partner at Deloitte Central Europe at a “Male Champions of Change” conference organized by the Success Written in Lipstick Foundation.

Over the past 15 years, female university graduates have constituted a clear majority. So the reason for the overwhelming majority of male directors cannot be lower qualifications. Luckily, the number of women on boards is growing incrementally. Foreign capital companies send a clear positive signal. However, state-controlled companies are on the other side of the spectrum – the number of women on boards there is small and refuses to budge. That is abundantly clear when we visit business and economic events where state-controlled companies set the tone for the event. There are hardly any women to be found among debate panelists.

That’s how much less women earn in managerial positions compared to their male counterparts.

The disproportion between men and women is even more obvious when we compare pay checks. The wage gap in Poland is an average PLN 700 monthly pay less for women, the Ministry of Labor stated. Still, Poland has a far smaller disparity (approx. 7 percent) than the EU average, where it stands at 16.7 percent, according to Eurostat. But even if women in Poland are better off at the start of their careers than their European colleagues, the higher they climb, the larger the gap gets. In managerial positions, women earn over a quarter (27.7 percent) less than their male counterparts, which is 4.3 pp above EU average.WIl--Stat-2

“The largest pay gap is in managerial and director positions,” confirmed Kamila Kaliszyk, director at Mastercard. “A woman with 6-8 years of experience makes only 60 percent of the median pay that men with the same experience make,” she said.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would disagree that gender equality in the workplace is an issue that needs to be addressed. “As much as 60 percent of people with higher education and over half of the available workforce are women. No business can afford to ignore that. That’s why we need to stop talking about parity and start taking concrete steps to allow women to increase their involvement in business,” Deloitte’s Konik stated.

The way it should be addressed, however, is open for debate. One view is that it is up to the employer to enforce policies encouraging women to take on managerial and directorial positions, because, ultimately, it is in their best interest. Mastercard, for instance, has a policy where any vacancy that is to be filled requires at least one female candidate.

“Any mistakes a female CEO or manager makes are emphasized more than in case of men.” 

Of course, the best person for the job is selected based on merit, but a situation where all candidates are men is simply unacceptable. It is somewhat surprising that such instances even occur and that the company needs to look for the “token woman” to be able to carry out the recruitment process. But as Kaliszyk explains it, “Oftentimes, women don’t look for career opportunities, you need to knock on their door and tell them: ‘Hey, there’s a job opening that you’d be perfect for.’”

WIl--Stat-3There is an ongoing debate about how much the state should get involved in fostering gender equality in the workplace. Some countries have gone as far as implementing a policy of penalties for companies that have too few women on the board. In 2003, Norway introduced quotas for stock exchange listed companies, requiring at least 40 percent of their board members to be women, or having to face financial penalties. That didn’t do much good. “Only after they gave their companies an ultimatum in 2006: either hire more women or be delisted, did the policy have an actual effect,” said Ewa Rumińska-Zimny, head of International Forum of Women in Science and Business at the Warsaw School of Economics and a university professor. Now, in Norway over 42 percent of board members in listed companies are women. France, Italy and Belgium have followed suit with similar regulations. As have Spain and the Netherlands, they did stop, however, short of implementing penalties.

Unfortunately for Poland, the prevailing policy is still not to admit that a problem with inequality exists. Only about a quarter of Polish firms have implemented diversity policy for top positions. There are changes, but many of them are too slow.

“In mentoring programs it’s usually a man teaching a woman how to act like a man.”

Regardless of what measures are being implemented, there need to be enough women interested in taking the opportunities to make an actual change. The problem is not only with men promoting men, but more often than not it is women who shy away from career-making opportunities. “Whenever there is possibility of a promotion, I have never seen a guy wonder whether or not he should apply. ‘Sure, I’m in!’ – that’s what men think and how they act when faced with an opportunity. When a woman is faced with a similar choice, she stops to wonder: ‘Am I good enough? Do I have enough experience to do it?’” Kaliszyk said.WIl--Stat-4

The result is that 59 percent of office employees have a man as their immediate superior, according to a Hays report. “Girls are raised to be prepared for a supporting role, not having an actual impact on reality. Many people, including women, are still bound by that way of thinking,” commented Lucyna Pleśniar, CEO of HR firm PEOPLE, adding that women tend to expect more of themselves than of others, often feel more responsible and even diminish their successes and their role. “They are simply too modest.”

The key to changing that attitude is to teach them otherwise and mentoring programs are the way to do it. Besides, sharing knowledge is one of the things that women seem to do better than men. The multitude of women’s organizations, such as WIREP (Women In Real Estate in Poland) and SheXO is proof of that. “Until now, companies organized mentoring on their own. Now, we are joining forces and we hope to see the number of women leaders in Poland grow. We also hope that managers who take part in our project will inspire other women to do the same,” commented Iwona Georgijew, partner at Deloitte, head and founder of the SheXO club, and a co-creator of the LeadersIN cross-mentoring program.

But even with all the girl power, the world of business is what it is, and no amount of pep talk is going to turn back the river. After all, it takes two to tango. “Until recently, only women were talking about barriers, solutions and ideas and women were the ones listening. It has been proven, however, that if we fight the fight to be noticed on our own, closing the wage gap would take us decades. That’s why the role of men is so important,” said Olga Kozierowska, co-founder of the Success Written in Lipstick Foundation, which recently created the “Male Champions of Change” club.

“There is no work-life balance at CEO level. You will have to sacrifice something.”

Maybe that’s why it is with men that hopes for change rest. But the risk with male mentorship is that the mentee is often trained to mimic the mentor. “The one thing that I find disconcerting about mentoring programs is that usually it’s a man teaching a woman how to act like a man,” said Piotr Dziwok, CEO of Shell Polska.

Read more: Is it time we make gender balance a priority?

Read more:
Is it time we make gender balance a priority?

It is almost a cliché that a woman who wants to make it in business needs to behave like a man. Does it really have to be this way? Grażyna Piotrowska-Oliwa, CEO of Virgin Mobile in Poland disagrees: “You do not have to be a bad woman to gain respect and recognition in business. … Be understanding, but first of all think about the company. You do not have to be cruel, just a realist,” she shared during a discussion regarding diversity and business management organized under CaixaBank’s “Diversity Talks” program.

Unsurprisingly, the chief reason given for why fewer women make it to the top is family. Juggling career and family is a trade-off. You can’t do both equally well, one or the other will always take precedence. For many women, it is the career that fades into the background at some point. Beata Pawłowska, CEO of Oriflame Poland, agrees: “There is no work-life balance at CEO level. You will have to sacrifice something,” she said. But at the same time, she urged women not to feel guilty for focusing on their careers: “Women do not have to be perfect in every role. If you do what you like, if you fulfill your professional dream and passion, you are not sacrificing anything, you are realizing your potential and your dreams – that which makes you happy,” she concluded.

Two professional industries that have historically been dominated by men, but which are now rapidly changing, are finance and real estate. Globally, only 16 percent of managerial positions are occupied
by women in the finance industry. In Poland, the parity is significantly better, with nearly a quarter (24 percent) of female managers, according to a study conducted by consulting firm Oliver Wyman. But many believe that there is still a lot of reluctance to let women into the boardroom where the big bucks are made. “Hiring women in top-level positions is considered risky, also in the financial sector, where men dominate. Any mistakes a female CEO or manager makes are emphasized more than in case of men,” Pleśniar said.

“Hiring women in top-level positions is considered risky.”

But there are banks that are looking to rectify the situation. At US-based State Street Bank office in Poland women make up 53 percent of employees. And why wouldn’t they want to work there if the employer is open to flexible working hours, home office, part-time employment – all the things that make returning to work after having a baby easier. Meanwhile, Alior Bank, founded by Poles in 2008, and listed on the WSE since 2012, has four women out of seven board members.

Read more: Where are the female leaders?

Read more:
Where are the female leaders?

Mastercard has decided to go further with its initiative to level the playing field for men and women and has introduced eight-week paid paternity leave. “In 2016, Mastercard’s CEO Ajay Banga stated that the wage gap will be eliminated. That from now on, men and women in the same positions will earn exactly the same money,” Kaliszyk added.

Things could also be turning for the better in another industry that seems to see the prevalence of men over women – that is real estate. It’s hard not to notice that the vast majority of participants at large-scale industry gatherings, such as Expo Real in Munich, are sharply-dressed men.

However, the situation is not as bad as it seems once we take a look inside. An analysis of 36 top real estate companies in Poland has revealed that 22 percent of board seats were occupied by women, and the proportion of female to male CEOs is similar. “It is an interesting phenomenon, however, that the CFO position is frequently occupied by women, while deputy CEOs are almost exclusively male,” remarked Urszula Walenciuk, senior consultant at Hill International, who conducted the analysis. While the numbers seem to be pointing to male dominance, the real estate industry is far more inclusive than e.g. the transport industry, where one would be hard pressed to find more than a couple of women on the boards of leading companies.

Real estate may be in fact one of the examples where a foreign influence, particularly that of more progressive, Scandinavian companies, may bring a fresh wind of change sooner than elsewhere. “I have been a Supreme Supervisory Board Member of a Danish stock listed owner of property in Poland – the only Polish women to hold such a position. What is more, my counterpart, responsible for leading the negotiation team in our divestment process is also a woman,” said Joanna Iwanowska Nielsen of CeMat.

“Oftentimes, women don’t look for career opportunities, you need to knock on their door and tell them: ‘Hey, there’s a job opening that you’d be perfect for.’”

Indeed, the prospects for women in real estate, one of the fastest-growing industries in Poland, seem promising. The number of women in the real estate business is increasing, particularly in managerial
positions, stated Krystyna Swojak, the creator of the Top Woman in Real Estate competition and Marketing Director at Real Connect. “They’ve managed to penetrate the historically male-dominated industry because they offer competencies that correspond to what the market needs: they’re flexible, ambitious, decisive, and also more willing to share knowledge and help each other, which gives them a clear advantage,” she said.

Despite the clear disparities in board and CEO positions in Polish companies, chances are that the gap will continue to close. It seems clear that Polish professional women need to be bolder and more confident, particularly since they are better educated, hard-working and highly productive. Women’s organizations are an excellent way of disseminating some of the best success stories so that they can be repeated, also in other, even more “traditionalist” industries.

Women in Poland have come a long way over the past 30 years. During the Round Table talks in 1989, which brought about the fall of the communist rule in Poland, there were a number of women involved in committee works but only two were actually invited to sit at the Round Table, one on each of the opposing sides: the communist government and the Solidarity movement.



The woman in red in the photo (bottom left corner) is GRAŻYNA STANISZEWSKA
She was the only woman to take part in the Round Table talks on the Solidarity side. She was a member of Solidarity’s regional council since 1980. She was interned during the martial law in 1981-1982 and again arrested in 1983 for her involvement in underground Solidarity activity. She currently sits on the European Parliament’s Committee on Regional Development.


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