Suzana Fagundes, VP of HR, legal and sustainability at ArcelorMittal Brazil and sponsor of the group’s first sustainable development outcome (our people), shares her thoughts on why gender diversity matters in the workplace, and how acknowledging and addressing unconscious gender bias will help achieve it.

Today is International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year’s theme, Press for Progress, seeks to motivate and unite friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.

So, I’d like to begin by paying tribute to a wonderful role model in my own life who showed me that, as a woman, it is possible to have both a successful career and a wonderful family life – my mother.

In her, I have been fortunate to have an excellent example. She worked as an economist in a state-owned traffic planning company, an environment which in Brazil at the time was male-dominated. Despite the difficulties that come with pioneering change, she was very successful and able to finely balance her work and personal life as a wife and mother of three. She was professionally fulfilled and personally very happy.

Having observed such a wonderful role model my whole life, it’s important to me to share the lessons I’ve learned from her with other women. That’s why I am proud to be one of the founding directors of WILL – Women in Leadership in Latin America, an NGO with the mission to become a premier women’s business forum providing access to a strong global network of executive women who mentor, encourage and inspire other female executives, or aspiring executives. WILL also provides educational and career development support to aid the advancement of such women throughout their careers into leadership and/or executive positions across all industries and sectors in Latin America.

Why does this matter? Because women are 50% of the population, yet according to global accountancy firm Grant Thornton, they account for only 24% of the leadership positions in private companies.

This statistic demonstrates that despite being highly qualified, women are still promoted far less frequently than their male peers. In a world that demands rapid responses to complex issues, different views and approaches are needed to meet those demands – and women bring that diversity. That’s why companies cannot overlook this important part of the workforce and should strive to attract it to close the gender gap – and quickly: The World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report says gender parity across the world is 217 years away!

Despite the size of the challenge, the quantifiable business benefits that gender diversity brings are beginning to be understood, which could accelerate change. Global consultancies have been studying the impact of gender diversity on company bottom lines and the results they have found may surprise you:

According to McKinsey, a global management consultancy, companies with women in key positions are 21% more likely to be more profitable than their competitors. Studies like this demonstrate that the imbalance between men and women in the workplace, including those in leadership positions, as well as the difference in their salaries, is neither natural nor logical.

But neither is it, in my view, deliberate. In general, there is no conscious discrimination against women. However, there is unconscious gender bias, which companies rarely acknowledge. They tend to assume that the most talented professionals will automatically benefit from the best opportunities, regardless of their gender, race, profession, age or any other characteristics. This misleads them into believing that implementing diversity programs is unnecessary. In my opinion, hiring the best candidate on the day is not enough to increase diversity in organisations. There are several reasons for this, including the unconscious gender bias, already mentioned.

Another reason relates to the fact that most leadership positions are still held by men, who have not experienced the barriers which can prevent women from attaining better professional opportunities. That being the case, it’s easy to be unaware that those barriers exist and consequently, not do enough to promote initiatives to remove them and improve gender diversity. This may explain why the World Economic Forum’s data I referred to earlier also shows that where there are women in leadership roles, more women are hired at all levels.

Finally, women often face social expectations that men are less likely to experience. For instance, in Brazil, and probably in many other countries too, women are expected to take care of most household tasks, including childcare and education, which adds an extra challenge to their professional activities.

Notwithstanding the above, the significance of gender diversity in the workplace is gaining in profile. Companies are being requested to present data and strategy on the matter and more of them are implementing initiatives to reduce the gender gap.

At ArcelorMittal, we are putting in place initiatives we think will facilitate this change, so we can benefit from the value women’s perspectives bring to the challenges we face as a business. At the corporate level, we are running [email protected], a development programme especially for female employees, and we are developing specialised training to raise awareness of unconscious bias and the value of diversity. At the country level, we have a wide range of mentoring programmes for female talent and work with local partners to encourage females to take up careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

We know we have more to do and are committed to doing it because gender diversity will not happen by itself. As a leader in steel and mining, ArcelorMittal can play a vital role in forwarding the cause by promoting initiatives to improve gender diversity at all levels of leadership, across the group. Steel and mining are predominantly male industries and men need to be part of this discussion because they are part of the solution. When men understand and acknowledge that unconscious gender bias exists and agree to act to increase gender diversity, everyone will benefit.

Companies which face the gender diversity challenge, discuss it in a transparent way and suggest measures to Press for Progress, will become more attractive to women. By doing this they are sure to have the best professionals. At ArcelorMittal, that is our objective on International Women’s Day – and every day.