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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Create “wildflower” conditions at work to bridge the gender gap

Published 7 March 2023 in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion • 7 min read

Significant strides have been made in closing the gender gap globally, but women remain disadvantaged in many walks of life. Here’s how businesses can act to help women flourish in the workplace.


Even today, women face gender stereotypes and social pressures as they strive to become their true selves. This is poignantly articulated by Sahana Joshi, a 16-year-old student, in her poem, “Wildflower”. The poem is itself a testament to why work remains to address these social pressures, despite years of advocating for equality.


they told her she was a daisy
don’t touch her too hard – she’ll break
kind of pretty
the thin glass sculpture in a box –
caution: fragile
kind of beauty
they told her that opinions
made her less beautiful
that if she swallowed the words
and smiled a little brighter
it would all be okay
she wanted to be a wildflower
growing, changing
despite the grass around
unashamedly herself
when the world told her
that she couldn’t succeed
broke her seemingly fragile stem
and plucked each of her petals
she showed them that since day one
she had everything she needed
within herself
that she held the world
in the palm of her hand

The metaphor of wildflowers in Sahana’s poem is significant. In nature, wildflowers grow and thrive in their natural habitat unaltered by people. The presence of wildflowers indicates the health of the biodiversity of our natural ecosystem. However, wildflowers are under threat: over the past 80 years, 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK have been turned over to cropland.  

In the poem, Sahana’s wish to be unashamedly herself links to fundamental components of inclusion; a sense of belonging, authenticity, and uniqueness. These components enable people to be seen and treated as valuable for their unique identities even when dissimilar from others – must-have conditions for young talent in today’s workplace.

It is one thing to wish to be a ‘wildflower, unashamedly oneself’, but this cannot happen without deliberate, systemic change to create the environment for each of us to grow and bloom. When it comes to the gender gap, this means shifting the focus from “fixing” women so that they can fit into the existing status quo to “fixing” the system so that women and girls can thrive.

Slow progress shows the need for a different approach

The most recent Global Gender Gap Report from the World Economic Forum, published in July 2022, estimated it would take 132 years to reach gender parity around the world, with just 68% of the gap closed. For example, despite legislation in several countries, no nation has so far achieved pay parity for similar jobs.

Conditions for women vary greatly across the globe. Iceland, the global leader in the report’s rankings, has closed more than 90% of its overall gender gap, and emerging economies such as Rwanda, Nicaragua, and Namibia also feature in the top ten. At the other end of the scale, Afghanistan has closed less than 44% of its gender gap, and India and Japan rank well below their relative economic and political standing in the world.

Perhaps most striking in the report, from a business perspective, is the imbalance that exists between the near parity rating for educational attainment globally and disappointing figures for economic participation and opportunity, where just 60% of the gender gap has been closed. Labor force participation for women is at its lowest level since the report was introduced in 2006, exacerbated by the  , which reinforced societal expectations of women as caregivers.

This uncomfortable disparity between educational attainment and economic participation underlines the need for change at a systemic level to address the gender gap in the workplace.

Young girls and women do not need to read this report or any similar survey to understand the complex challenges they face every day at work. Despite legislation in many European countries enforcing equal pay for similar roles, on average, women in the European Union work for two months for free each year relative to their male colleagues. Despite supportive legislation, women face a motherhood penalty for having children and face the same old glass ceilings when it comes to positions of seniority. In the US tech industry, the turnover rate is more than twice as high for women and nearly four in ten women in tech report witnessing gender bias at work.

Systemic and cultural change is needed

We have seen what can be achieved in education once the appropriate resources and structures are in place – according to the WEF, nearly 95% of the gender gap has been closed globally, with 29 countries at full parity. This has required systemic transformation and commitment at all levels of the educational system. This systemic commitment to achieve gender parity is needed in the workplace. 

In the US tech industry, the turnover rate is more than twice as high for women and nearly four in ten women in tech report witnessing gender bias at work.

We cannot underestimate the importance of overhauling institutionalized behaviors and cultures that underpin discriminatory and unwelcoming structures. A recent report by BRIDGE Partnership explored how female executives have succeeded, highlighting areas such as enabling non-traditional career paths, the wider adoption of soft leadership skills, and the need for working environments that allow for individual authenticity.

Companies’ responsibility in creating equity

Legislation and public awareness will not be enough. Many countries have passed laws that enshrine and promote gender equality in work, but the statistics show that reality lags behind the letter of the law. Companies have a powerful role to play in addressing the gaps that exist. Here are some questions that companies can address:

  • Does your company pay women less for managing the same tasks as their male peers?
  • Does your company have data to understand pay gaps across your organization?
  • What is your organization’s own “equal pay day” – the date when female colleagues reach the same earnings as male colleagues?
  • Have you set goals to close pay gaps and reduce your women’s payday to January 1 over a specific period?

Addressing unfair pay practices makes a significant difference to equity. Once the data are made available to management and commitments are made, companies can make progress.

Be transparent and have a plan

Data and transparency can also help, especially when it comes to organizations being accountable for and aware of their gender gaps. Tracking the number of women entering your workforce and their progression through the system will help to identify blockages and biases that may not seem obvious to management in day-to-day operations.

  • How many women serve in the lower, middle, and upper levels of management of your organization?
  • How long does it take for women to move up the ladder, relative to men?
  • How long do women stay with your company?
According to the WEF, nearly 95% of the gender gap has been closed globally, with 29 countries at full parity.

Publishing data on gender gaps in your organization, such as pay, workforce numbers, retention, and progression sends a powerful message of commitment. This data can inform an action plan to close your organization’s gender gap and help to show progress and challenges along the way. Does your company have a plan to close its gender gap?

Support greater flexibility for parents

Companies also need to do more to create a supportive environment for working mothers, both in terms of perception, treatment, and policy. As explored in this article on dismantling the “maternal brick wall”, co-authored with Christos Cabolis, biases reinforce stereotypes that women do not prioritize their careers when they become mothers. Organizations can counter this through concrete policies that offer flexibility and recognize the impact of parenthood on their employees’ lives.

Use the diversity of workplaces to involve male colleagues as allies

Finally, while women have successfully fought and lobbied for equality and equity in the workplace for decades, the support of men is vital to drive the systemic changes needed to achieve true parity and to foster working environments that support “wildflowers”. Companies must actively invite male workers and management to become aware of topics ranging from microaggressions to pay and promotions and invite them to act as informed and conscious allies.

If more women, such as our wildflower poet Sahana, are to reach their unique potential in the world of work, companies need to step up their efforts to change the system so that it allows women to be their authentic selves. This starts with changing institutionalized attitudes about women’s roles in the workplace, involving male colleagues, enforcing legislation, and tracking and publishing progress towards eliminating their own gender gaps.

Those companies that establish these “wildflower-friendly” habitats will attract and retain more female talent and reap the rewards of greater diversity across their organizations. Let us co-create the conditions for wildflowers to grow and blossom.



Heather Cairns-Lee

Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication

Heather Cairns-Lee is Affiliate Professor of Leadership and Communication at IMD. She is a member of IMD’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Council and an experienced executive coach. She works to develop reflective and responsible leaders and caring inclusive cultures in organizations and society.




Sahana Joshi

High school student at ISL

Sahana Joshi is a high school student, studying at ISL. She is a writer for their student newspaper, The High and is also a member of the school band Beyond Mondays.


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