What challenges are facing women in business in 2021? | TopMBA.com

What challenges are facing women in business in 2021?

By Niamh O

Updated November 23, 2021 Updated November 23, 2021

Gender segregation, lack of confidence and assertiveness, and underfunded female startups are just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ve only recently moved into the second quarter of 2021 – but there are already two figures that jump out when it comes to top management positions in 2021:  

  1. Women occupy only 21 percent of these roles. 

  1. Women represent 54 percent of overall job losses due to the current pandemic-induced economic crisis. 

ESCP Executive Education recently held a virtual roundtable to discuss how to boost women in industry, combat societal bias and address the unique challenges faced by women in business. 

More women in management than ever before – but still not enough at a senior level 

Diana Clarke, Professor at ESCP Business School said in the discussion that there have never been as many women in management as there are today – nor as many women at start-ups: “We can safely say that around 37 percent of middle management positions are now occupied by women.” 

However, Clarke added that the number decreases as you go up the corporate ladder – with about 25 percent hired in senior middle management, and 13 percent at board level.  

Clarke said: “We have to work on this, we're reflecting situations with roots from 25 years ago.” 

Female startups are performing well but underfunded 

First Round Capital’s 2020 figures, however, did offer some positive insight – with 40 percent of all their funded startups run by women. Clarke said: “2020 was a crisis year, and female-run startups outperformed male startups by 60 percent.” 

Clarke also says how important mindset is. Yes, women get less investment in their startups, but fewer women ask for it as well. She thinks one solution is for women to be comfortable asking for more funding.  

Gender segregation leads to male-dominated fields 

Women’s presence in management has increased since 1980, but there are industries such as healthcare and education where women are overrepresented compared to others.  

Clarke said: “Gender segregation in occupations is reflected specially in the STEM sector, and this is where there could be consequences for the future if something is not done about this.  

STEM industries are among the fastest growing in the world yet nearly three million jobs in STEM worldwide went unfulfilled last year – a sector with the least female representation. Clarke said: “Only 27 percent of jobs in STEM sectors are filled by women, especially, in technology not more than 12 percent, and in mathematics it’s around five percent.” 

This coincides with vocational segregation according to Clarke. When you ask the average teenage girl at 15 what her aspirations are, only around 20 percent will think about STEM occupations – but she admits this can be fixed. 

She said: “The number of women in middle management has more than quadrupled over the last 20 years. It requires more than asking corporations to set up women leadership programmes, it requires a concerted effort, and creating a microcosm, an ecosystem that empowers women from all sides.” 

Gérald Karsenti, Chairman SAP France & SVP, was the only man on the panel – offering insight from a male perspective. When thinking about challenges, Karsenti says SAP identified three in particular. 

He said it’s a cliche to say that women are not interested by technology and men are more attracted by it, but there is a truth within the cliche. He said: “From our default analysis, women are more interested by what you can do with technology.” 

He said: “At SAP HQ in Paris, we can show hospital rooms, how we can save lives, change the way we eat tomorrow – that’s something that speaks to women more.” 

Female job applicants can lack confidence and assertiveness 

Karsenti also thinks women need to be given more confidence to take jobs. From his experience, he says a woman will thank you for the opportunity but think about all the reasons why she's not ready and needs some time.  

He added: “But a man will say very quickly ‘Don't look any more, I am your man.’” 

Companies fail to understand benefits of more equal workplaces 

Valentina Ieraci (ESCP EMBA 2022), Chief Operating Officer, Coolshop for BCG Digital Ventures UAE, believes training is important. She said: “Of course recruitment is important as a KPI because we have to understand how many employees are women. 

“One of our KPIs is to organise moments of practical training where we mix teams so that the value of female presence can be perceived more and more. We want to make clear the value of the mixed teams. We think the value of experience is what really allows us to change mindsets.” 

Improving education from an early age 

Educating women from a young age was also a prominent topic.  

Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke (ESCP EMBA 2009), Founder & Managing Director, Women's WorldWide Web (W4), said: “There’ve been great gains in education, but the problem is we're not seeing that in STEM and we're certainly not seeing that in tech. 

“In Europe, women account for 17 percent of ICT specialists. There's a huge, costly supply-demand mismatch. 

“The research shows it starts at an early age. It's got nothing to do with ability. Instead, girls and young women tend to self-select out.” 

Nefesh-Clarke believes there are a number of ways to address this: adopting education, address unconscious bias and stereotypes in education.  

She said: “In our work at W4, we're very proud to be involved in a global project, Tech for Girls. 

“We're trying to introduce girls to technologies at an early age. Our objective is to pique their interest to provide them with hands-on engaging experience of technologies.”  

Véronique Tran, Dean of the Executive MBA programme at ESCP and the Dean and Rector of ESCP's Berlin campus noted the importance of soft skills, and the necessity to build women up from a young age. She said: "Boosting their self-confidence and sense of self-efficacy is very important and needs to be nurtured as adults too. This is what we provide women managers who attend our Executive MBA." 

Nefesh-Clarke believes these priorities could be a gamechanger, but other aspects need to be addressed. 

She said: “We need to see more gender-smart finance investing. The paucity of VC capital that goes to women-owned businesses is pretty demoralising; that needs to be turned around. There's really an education, employment and leadership disconnect. 

“We've made these great gains in terms of women's education but that isn’t translating into women's leadership. 

“You hear these figures that it will take 130 years to achieve gender parity among heads of government – we're not going to wait for that.” 

Chiara Corazza, Managing Director of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society, added: “I’m convinced the private sector alone cannot do it. If we really want to achieve it quickly and accelerate, we have to combine the width, energy and ambitions of the public and private sector.  

“We shouldn’t punish those who don’t do it but give incentives to hire both girls and boys in the tech system.”  

Working together moving forward 

Ieraci thinks we have to work on results – drive by objectives, not talk about power or differences, but continue the work for the results we want to achieve.  

Nefesh-Clarke says accountability should also be at the forefront: “It’s about leadership in all domains and everybody’s roles as leaders or role models.” 

Clarke added: “It’s going to be an effort and then an accelerated effort from many sectors – not public, not private. It’s going to be lobbying, using influence at all levels.” 

Tran concluded the panel discussion beautifully when she said: "We need to change mindsets. To do that we need to educate. We need to give women more confidence, and we need to better prepare women for the digital disruption that's already a challenge today."

Sign up to attend the global QS Women in Leadership Event on 7 December. This event highlights the career benefits for women who want to pursue an MBA or business master’s degree. As both at the top of the business world and in business schools women are still in the minority, our aim is to empower female candidates to connect with leading institutions and learn more about their career opportunities via postgraduate education.  

This article was originally published in April 2021 . It was last updated in November 2021

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Written by

Niamh is Deputy Head of Content at QS (TopMBA.com; topuniversities.com), creating and editing content for an international student audience. Having gained her journalism qualification at the Press Association, London and since written for different international publications, she's now enjoying telling the stories of students, alumni, faculty, entrepreneurs and organizations from across the globe.  

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