Could languages help young women break the glass ceiling?

by Lisa-Maria Müller

The gender pay gap is persistent and while the number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is at an all-time high, according to the 2017 list released by Fortune magazine, it still only amounts to 32, or 6.4%. But young women might have an ace up their sleeves ...

A much-cited report by Professor James Foreman-Peck for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) argued in 2014 that the lack of language skills are costing the UK economy £48bn, or 3.5% of GDP. The Born Global Study reported that 74% of 500 business leaders are worried that young graduates’ horizons were not broad enough to operate in an international setting. This was further confirmed by the recent CBI-Pearson Education and Skills survey, which reported an increase from 30 to 39% of employers’ dissatisfaction with graduates’ international cultural awareness. The lack of language skills, and consequently the lack of international work and study experiences, is at least partly to blame for that.

These numbers clearly indicate a growing interest in employees’ language skills for the international job market and it does not stop at employees. In recent years, the language skills of CEOs have come under scrutiny. For example, Mark Zuckerberg’s fluent Chinese was discussed widely after a Q&A at Tsinghua University in 2014. In reaction to this appearance, Bill Gates lamented his own lack of language knowledge when he said that he felt “pretty stupid“ for only knowing English.

A quick browse around business forums and blogs also shows a heightened interest in the languages that CEOs of successful companies already know and which ones they should learn in the future. Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and German tend to top those lists for US companies and Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German are considered the most important languages to know for business purposes in post-Brexit Britain.

In light of all this, it seems important to raise the question of who might have the potential to fill the clear gap in language skills in the UK over the coming years. The answer appears to be: girls!

To date, girls have performed consistently better than boys at GCSE across all languages. The most recent numbers show that roughly 10% more girls were awarded an A/7 grade in their exams than boys. We also know from research that their attitudes to language learning tend to be more positive and, to date, they tend to do better academically in general. Young women are hence in a particularly good position to offer companies the language skills they (claim to) so desperately seek.

This is not to say, of course, that women should have to offer more than their male competitors to receive equal pay or access managerial positions and a lot of hard work still needs to be done to finally achieve equality between men and women (and to motivate boys to learn languages). However, in the meantime, language skills might be the key to putting young women a step ahead of their male competitors and thus into the positions of a new generation of multilingual female leaders.

So, on International Women’s Day, let’s spread the word and tell young women and girls to start playing that ace they have hidden up their sleeves.

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