Gender balance at all levels trumps the peril of 'womenwashing'

10 March 2021 5 min. read
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As the world celebrates International Women’s Day this week, Nobuko Kobayashi, a partner with EY-Parthenon in Asia Pacific, warns that leaders must be wary of ‘womenwashing’, where businesses hastily put a small number of token women in highly visible positions to feign the semblance of gender equality. 

Greenwashing is an act by a corporation that, sensing the rising tide of environmental, social and corporate governance, exaggerates – or even fakes – how environmentally progressive it actually is. How to clamp down on the practice has become an important issue to investors. 

The analogy to womenwashing crossed my mind as Seiko Hashimoto, a 56-year-old former Olympian and Olympic minister, accepted the nomination to succeed former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori as president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Nobuko Kobayashi, Partner, EY-Parthenon

To be clear, Hashimoto's appointment – one of two women in Suga's 20-member cabinet – was the right decision. It is also encouraging that half of the selection panel for the position were women. Nonetheless, critics contend that Hashimoto's appointment paid lip service to gender equality following Mori's demise for making sexist remarks, evoking this concept of womenwashing. 

This process can happen in business and politics when the reality of gender imbalance collides with an urgent need to appear otherwise. In such cases, a candidate's gender outweighs any assessment of the person's other qualifications. Counterintuitively, this hurts the cause of gender equality in the long run.

First, an appointment made in the interests of womenwashing lacks transparency and can imply that the appointee has not met the same qualifications as others. This can result in resentment from peers, whose lack of support makes the success of her job even more difficult. It is not fair to the woman and is hardly a desired outcome for the organisation. 

Moreover, such appointments make women appear interchangeable with one another that they are in the role only because they are women. Such a stigma can weigh heavily on the appointee. 

Sometimes even the intention behind womenwashing can be malicious. The term glass cliff refers to a crisis in which a woman leader is hurled at a monumental challenge. It is a lucky break if she manages to steer clear, and it is also acceptable even if she does not. The organisation takes consolation from the nod of approval it gets for having been so progressive as to appoint a woman to handle such a high-stakes situation. Throwing a woman from a glass cliff is sexism in disguise. 

Avoiding the trap

Just as greenwashing is a byproduct of greater awareness for sustainability, so is womenwashing tied to the well-intended push to see greater gender diversity at work. How can we then avoid the trap of womenwashing, without taking a foot off the gas? 

The answer lies in the coverage. Rather than obsessing over women at the top, we must work on gender balance across all levels within organisations. In other words, we need to put substance over symbolism. This can be achieved by examining gender balance from two directions: top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top.

For top-to-bottom, succession planning holds the key and brings to mind an anecdote shared by a consultant colleague. One day, a male CEO announced that all his senior executives – at the time 100% male – must have at least one female report to him directly, or they would receive no bonus. It did not take long for the stunned leadership group to look at each other and realise that this meant that one of them, too, would have to be replaced by a woman.


Quotas with a penalty can send a powerful message. Contrary to popular belief, a study published in the American Economic Review found that quotas can weed out incompetent men rather than promote unqualified women. 

Concurrently, quotas should be examined progressively with a time coefficient when it comes to bottom-to-top. In our favour is the grassroots change in gender balance in society at large. In a blue-chip Japanese trading company, the women ratio in the incoming cohort of college graduates easily exceeds 30% today, a huge uptick compared to the single-digit ratio of 20 years ago.

The bottom-to-top examination of progressive quota forces management to face the problem known as the leaky pipe – for example, mothers dropping out mid-career due to the lack of support for young parents. Fixing these on-the-ground issues may not be glamorous but does promise greater sustainability compared to one-off womenwashing appointments. 

By combining these two views, top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top, an employer can design an ambitious yet achievable blueprint to continuously improve on the organisation's gender balance at all levels. The benefit of diverse perspectives is not limited to the boardroom. And in the boardroom, if progressive quotas are in place across the organization, the gender of the CEO matters less. 

In a country like Japan, there is a wide gap between the reality – dire scarcity and therefore elevated prominence for a few senior-level women – and the desire to halt Japan's slide down the international gender gap rankings. Currently, Japan sits at 121st out of 153 nations, according to World Economic Forum in 2019. This gap makes womenwashing, diversity for the sake of optics, tempting.

Before appointing a woman to a senior executive role, we must stop and think – what about the rest of the organisation? Is our plan holistic and sustainable to truly enhance gender diversity across the board? Sometimes we must slow down to go fast; going back to the drawing board of progressive quotas may be the right path.