Gender inequality across international markets: The opportunity costs for business

Mélanie Chevalier, Founder & CEO of Creative Culture explores the disparity in gender equality around the world, and how brands should be careful to not fit into the one-size-fits-all trap.

Mélanie Chevalier, Creative Culture

Founder & CEO


At Creative Culture, we have a mission to help companies support and promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) around the globe, wherever they operate. An essential factor for success of DEI policies for businesses has been the need for a strong business case to support these and to ensure DEI remains at the heart of a company’s global proposition. An important element to remember is that cross-cultural sensitivity is essential to ensure long term success.

The business case

We know that gender-based inequalities of pay and opportunity pervade societies around the world still to this day. However, despite some progress, an IBM survey from 2019 taken by 2,300 organisations across nine countries shows that only 18% of leadership positions were led by women, and 79% of them admitted not having fully prioritised gender-balanced leadership.

And, across the globe, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table by allowing the gender gap to continue. In fact, McKinsey & Company’s Global Institute report found that narrowing the gender gap could add between $12 and $28 trillion to global GDP.

McKinsey further shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50% higher when gender equality is closer at the leadership level and that executive level women have a huge and positive impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than their male colleagues to embrace employee-friendly policies and programmes and to champion all forms of diversity.

So, what are we waiting for?

Cultural factors clearly influence gender (in)equality and this percolates through to companies.

Mélanie Chevalier

Employment rate and gender pay gap across markets

Every society has gender employment and pay disparities.

Even in countries usually praised for being pioneers in gender inclusivity, such as Finland, the third most gender-equal country in the world, progress still needs to be made. The pay gap in Finland shows that the average woman earns 84% of the wage of her counterpart for regular work, and she still has to work harder to prove that she is as qualified as her male counterpart. Additionally, women-led industries have lower salaries and women partake in part-time and fixed-term roles more often than men. These factors combined lead women’s career progression to be slower than men’s.

As we look at other societies the picture is starker still.

Take Italy. It has one of the lowest female employment rates in Europe, with just over 50% of women aged 20–64 in work compared with over 70% of men, according to data from 2016. And while women are more likely than men to attend university, the average salary for men stands at €44,000, compared to €23,000 for women. How can such a significant gender pay gap be explained?

Traditional gender norms continue to influence people’s everyday lives in the country, and there is still a widespread cultural expectation that women will prioritise their role as caregivers and homemakers, while men will provide for their families financially. As such, Italian women are far more likely than their male peers to work part-time or to give up paid work entirely.

Culture also impacts women in Japan, which ranks 121 of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 rankings, compiled by the World Economic Forum. While individual companies in Japan are keen to change the gender balance of their workforce, they are hampered by a lack of women attending Japan’s elite universities. The fact that only 20-30% of students at such universities are female, this falls to just 15–25% for STEM subjects, means that women are underrepresented in the key talent pools from which many Japanese firms recruit. A lack of qualified candidates results in many women being hired as administrative staff (ippanshoku) rather than generalists (sogoshoku), meaning that their potential for career growth is limited from the start.

Cultural factors clearly influence gender (in)equality and this percolates through to companies.

So, how can brands navigate these cultural nuances and get it right?

Brands that don’t embrace this approach often are the ones that fall foul of miscommunication and risk creating negativity, offence and resulting damage to brand equity, both with internal and external stakeholders. All countries are not at the same level of maturity when it comes to gender inclusion and pushing the D&I agenda without taking on board local, cultural sensitivities could backfire, as in the following examples.  

In Italy, despite regulations to avoid discrimination in marcoms, ads that objectify, sexualise or degrade women are still commonplace. In 2019, the train operator Trenitalia faced a backlash for a campaign that used a play on words built around the idea that a man should break up with his girlfriend if she forgets to tell him the right platform information.

In Saudi Arabia, a historic reform introduced in 2018 enabled women to drive in the country, when they used to need the permission of a male guardian. This prompted Coca-Cola to release an advert showing a father teaching his daughter how to drive. While some approved of the brand’s initiative to celebrate significant cultural change, others believed it was a way for Coca-Cola to capitalise on this historic social advancement to sell its products and do so-called ‘pink-washing’.

As a contrast, in 2017, Accenture announced a plan to achieve a gender-balanced workforce by 2025. This conscious effort to improve female participation has involved publishing transparent statistics on all of its international sites, including India, where it employs over 45,000 women. As a result, Accenture ranked among the top 10 on the 100 Best Companies for Women in India list compiled by Working Mother and AVTAR in 2016.

Guest Author

Mélanie Chevalier, Creative Culture

Founder & CEO,


Mélanie has built her career on challenging the status quo of internationalisation and traditional models to offer a much more effective and qualitative approach by bringing local cultures back to the fore to feed globally led initiatives. A proud award winner of the 2021 Female Frontier’s Championing Change category, which celebrates women constantly pushing the boundaries of equality, gender balance, and making dynamic changes within their work, Mélanie is very active in promoting DEI and has developed innovative initiatives to allow brands to successfully navigate complex inclusion pieces within an even more complex and diverse multicultural environment.

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