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Cathy Ashton at a 2014 summit of leaders from the European Union, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in Minsk, Belarus.  Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo via Getty Images.

Where Does Gender Bias Remain?

The quest for gender equity has accomplished a great deal, but the challenges that remain are often complex and subtle. Cathy Ashton, the former high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs, discussed what to do about the structural and implicit biases that keep women from getting equal access to many opportunities.


There isn’t a single battle for gender equity, but many. In some parts of the world, the fight is to give girls access to basic education and control over their own lives. In the West, such barriers have fallen, but there is ample evidence of bias, implicit and otherwise, that prevents women from getting equal access to leadership positions and other opportunities.

For example, just three countries (Rwanda, Bolivia, and Cuba) currently have parliaments where women hold at least 45% of the seats. And women account for just 4% of the S&P 500’s CEOs.

Yale Insights talked about gender issues with Cathy Ashton, the former high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and first vice president of the European Commission. In a career in public service, she said, it became clear to her that women’s perspectives are, all too often, simply ignored. “In every society, making sure that 50% of the population actually get heard 50% of the time is quite difficult,” Ashton said.

The evidence that this challenge is ongoing can be found across cultures, regions, and industries. For instance, research by the Institute on Gender in Media found the ratio of male to female characters in family films is 3:1—a ratio that has been consistent since 1946. Further, of the people with jobs in those family films, only 19% were women. Another study found that women in the sciences were viewed as less competent, with scientific resumes with male names judged as more hirable, deserving of a higher starting salary, and more competent than the identical resume with a female name attached.  And according to the Atlantic, women are vastly underrepresented on conference panels in mathematics.

Ashton also points to the ways in which long-standing structures and processes can perpetuate inequality in businesses. Those include hiring and promotion practices that subtly discriminate such as using tenure at a company as a qualification for advancement. Since women are more likely to take time off to have and care for children and are more likely than men to move in order to follow a partner for work, their work histories may have gaps and shorter tenures.  “Many organizations set up frameworks that by definition, without meaning to, make it harder for women to engage and to grow,” Ashton said.

Ashton said that when she was leading the European Commission’s union for foreign affairs and security policy, she had made a conscious attempt to assemble a gender-balanced team, in part to signal to women that they were welcome. “If you are looking at an organization and you see that it doesn’t have people that look like you in it, you don’t think that’s where you belong,” she said.

Preventing women from reaching their full potential is self-defeating for a society, Ashton argued. “To be successful as a nation, it doesn’t make any sense to fail to utilize some of the greatest expertise in your population,” she said. “You can make very strong economic arguments for women being part of the workforce and leading companies and becoming decision makers even if you don’t agree with it on any other basis.”

Former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, European Union; Former First Vice President of the European Commission