Silence after the storm

More taboo-free women at the top

5 min
Text Katrien Verreyken
Image Davien Dierickx

On 8 March, International Women's Day, many companies took to social media to congratulate and honour the women working for them. But what's the current state of affairs when it comes to female employees? In Stroom, we like to look past the PR fluff to ascertain the actual position of women in the labour market. Professor of applied econometrics Sunčica Vujić (UAntwerp), professor of sustainable human resource management Peggy De Prins (UAntwerp/AMS) and CEO Dewi Van de Vyver (EFFEX) shed some light on taboos and challenges, on the dynamics between genders, on gender-neutral parenting, and on the infamous wage gap. 


In a nutshell

  • Women worldwide are currently more highly educated, which gives them better access to the labour market. 

  • Motherhood can slow women's careers down, and from that point on they can no longer keep up with men.  

  • There are still many taboos in the workplace, including the three M's – menstruation, motherhood and menopause.  

  • Children should be raised in a much more gender-neutral way right from the start. 

'Motherhood is the main cause of the wage gap'


Professor of Applied Econometrics Sunčica Vujić (Faculty of Business and Economics) researches the female presence in the labour market and gender inequality in wages and pensions. The global wage gap is also a subject she is invested in, as well as the work of economist and Nobel Prize winner Claudia Goldin, the undisputed authority on women in the workplace throughout history. 


More highly educated women 

An important observation to start with is that women worldwide are more highly educated, which definitely gives them better access to the labour market. Economist and Nobel Prize winner Claudia Goldin sees five explanations for the increased number of women in the labour market in the US: 1) the rising level of education, 2) changes in labour laws, 3) the increase of jobs in the service sector, 4) changing social norms and 5) access to contraception. 

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Motherhood can slow women's careers down, and from that point on they can no longer keep up with men.

Sunčica Vujić

'A very favourable evolution', says Vujić. But will this reduce the wage gap in the long term? 'Well, we don't know for sure. In Northern Europe, the wage gap between men and women is larger than in Southern Europe. Counterintuitive though that might seem, the fact is that in the South, segregation takes place before entry to the labour market. Only the more highly qualified women make it to the labour market there, while in Northern Europe there are a lot more diverse women in the workforce, leading to larger wage disparity. In Belgium, the wage gap seems smaller at first glance, but wages are much more regulated here, which means they are capped. So comparing European wages directly is like comparing apples and oranges.'  


There are many factors beyond our control that also influence wages. 'Women are generally weaker negotiators', says Vujić. 'They are more reluctant to ask for a raise, and they have difficulty saying no, which is why they often accept jobs where a promotion is not in the cards. But how can we measure that? And then there is also gender discrimination: when two candidates are equally qualified, all too often the man is still chosen over the woman.' 

Greedy jobs 

Potential motherhood may have something to do with the latter. According to Goldin, parenthood is one of the main causes of the persistent wage gap between men and women. 'Motherhood can slow women's careers down, and from that point on they can no longer keep up with men', says Vujić. 'We see this all over Europe – even in Scandinavian countries, where childcare is very flexible.' 


One possible explanation can be found in the concept of 'greedy jobs'. 'These are demanding jobs where the hourly wage increases with the number or the type of hours worked: late at night, on weekends, on public holidays ...  But these kinds of 'greedy jobs' cannot be combined with running a household, and women are still expected to take on the largest share of that. In 'greedy jobs' people work long, unpredictable hours, they always need to be available, and they are not easily replaceable. We can only achieve true equality if we also reward jobs that promote temporal flexibility and where coworkers can readily fill in for someone.'  

'Less ego and more people management' 


Peggy De Prins is an associate professor in sustainable HR management and the academic director of the strategic HRM master programme at the Antwerp Management School. She has conducted research into taboos in the workplace, which mainly affect women. 


Do companies actually adapt their policies to a female employee profile? 'These days, there's a big focus on diversity and inclusion', De Prins notes. 'Women are one of the more traditional groups in that broad category, so I'm seeing more and more campaigns focused on gender. Many companies are also experimenting with a 'Gender Equality Plan' to empower women and to help break glass ceilings. However, the harsh reality is that we're still faced with gendered career choices: some study programmes are chosen almost exclusively by men, and vice versa.'  

Women leaders 

There are also implicit expectations that women have to contend with, says De Prins: 'Despite emancipation, there are still a number of stereotypes ingrained in the DNA of the workplace. In top management positions, a typically masculine leadership style is implicitly expected: being available 24/7, tough talk, always thinking about the job ...  Women add more of a sense that we're all in this together, they're more empathetic, caring and customer-oriented, and they set more boundaries (e.g. with regard to working hours). Basically, less ego and more people management. I'm convinced that bringing in new female employees can help change old habits in an overly masculine culture. Beautiful things have been known to happen when the gender ratio changes. Research confirms that a healthy mix of leadership styles yields the best results.' 

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Despite emancipation, there are still a number of stereotypes ingrained in the DNA of the workplace.

Peggy De Prins

Taboos in the workplace 

It turns out that there are still many taboos in the workplace. De Prins has been investigating the three M's — menstruation, motherhood and menopause — that basically span a woman's entire career. 'At the start of her career, a woman is expected to be young and dynamic, and certainly not moody or struggling with pain and discomfort every month. In the 'mid-career' phase she's expected to be at cruising speed, and certainly not muddling along as she tries to combine her job with raising children. In the latter part of her career, the ideal female employee is seen as someone who is socially competent, stable and self-confident. However, menopause makes many women start to doubt themselves. They're more emotionally unstable, they're ashamed of their hot flashes, or they feel insecure about their appearance.'  


'It's strange that we talk about ergonomic chairs for back problems, but we rarely talk about typical female discomfort. Trainee nurses recently called for a uniform with black trousers instead of white ones to deal with menstrual accidents. And Gwendolyn Rutten talked freely about her premenopause some time ago. We need those kinds of stories so that policymakers can take them into account.' 

'Male-dominated IT has a huge impact on the final product' 


Communication Sciences alumnus Dewi Van De Vyver is the CEO of EFFEX (Efficient Experimentation), a tech company that develops software for mainly the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors. Van De Vyver is a strong proponent of getting more women on the boards of large companies, and she is all for gender-neutral parenting right from the very beginning. 


Dewi Van De Vyver's career path has had lots of wonderful twists and turns, from the cabinet of Guy Verhofstadt to running the software company Flow Pilots and now its brand new spin-off, EFFEX. 'The common thread in my career is IT, and being in start-up mode all the time', she laughs. 'I love that boots-in-the-mud feeling. I like to be in the start-up phase of everything I undertake, because that's where I feel my talents can really be put to use.' 


And she uses those talents in the predominantly male working environments of politics and tech/ICT, which means she has had to prove her worth quite a lot. 'They always say men are chosen for their potential, while women are chosen for their accomplishments. That's something I've experienced firsthand. And that's really a shame, because it's a proven fact that companies perform better when there are more women in leadership. I think that's because women do their homework, prepare well and ask the right questions, yet also dare to point out the things that are going wrong. We rarely beat about the bush.'  

Female IT 

Van De Vyver is convinced that the IT world urgently needs more women: 'If information technology remains solely in male hands, you will only hear that male voice. And that has a huge impact on the final product. Women are much more practical and intuitive than men, and focus much more on user-friendliness, for example. And then there's the problem of Big Data and the way our AI systems are currently trained: mainly by men. That's how prejudices and sometimes even misogyny can creep into the algorithms of TikTok and the like. There's an urgent need for more diverse gatekeepers to train those systems.' 


No stereotyping 

How can we 'feminise' male-dominated sectors in the short term? Urging girls to take up an interest in STEM? 'It starts much earlier than that', says Van De Vyver. 'From the moment a baby is born, we attach very stereotypical gender roles to it. Right from the start, girls get made-for-purpose toys – dolls, little play kitchens and ovens – while boys get open-ended toys: building blocks, Lego, things to build endlessly and creatively. If such 3D thinking or computational thinking isn't stimulated for 18 years, it will be too late to correct it in higher education. Children need to be raised in a much more gender-neutral way in that regard, right from the very start.' 

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