Poor economic conditions in Spain have triggered much higher rates of unemployment. Jobless numbers have reached historic highs, with more than four million Spaniards out of work, according to the latest official data. Of these, almost half are women. In 2009, some 415,000 women joined the list of unemployed. At the end of the year, their numbers had swelled to 1,934,000, which meant that the rate of unemployment among women in Spain was 19.07% — four points higher than in 2008.

Two scholars whose research focuses on the role of women in the managerial world — Mireia de la Heras, professor of personnel management at the IESE Business School at the University of Navarra, and Celia de Anca, professor of global diversity at the IE Business School — spoke with Universia-Knowledge at Wharton about the situation facing female employees in Spain.

Universia-Knowledge at Wharton: In your view, how has the crisis influenced the way women have made progress within corporations?

Mireia de Las Heras: Generally speaking, the crisis has had less impact on those sectors where women traditionally have a strong role, such as in the restaurant industry and personal services; workers without professional skills and credentials; public administrators, and educational staff. Nevertheless, the crisis has led companies to strengthen their patterns for taking action. Instead of searching for ways to work that are more flexible, creative and independent, they have focused on creating longer work days that are more controlled, and offer workers less space for creativity and independent contributions. Of course, in many cases, this has not had the desired effect of reducing costs and increasing productivity, but entirely the opposite effect.

Celia de Anca: Generally speaking, research shows that women are harmed the most because they have more precarious labor contracts, and they often get more prolonged leaves – for example, for taking care of children and family members who are sick or dependent on them. Nevertheless, in this crisis and, specifically in Spain, it doesn’t appear that this has been the case. This [crisis] is affecting everyone, with entire companies dismissing their work forces.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Do you believe that the crisis affects women differently than it affects men, in terms of jobs?

De Las Heras: The crisis affects women in a different way. Many companies, instead of breaking their ties with those people who are less productive or are less committed to the product and the mission of the company, break their ties with people on the basis of their [number of] working hours, and make the terrible mistake of doing away with people who work part-time or under flexible conditions.

On the other hand, people who would use such measures of flexibility have an aversion to the risks that these measures can entail as a result of the danger of disassociation. What’s more, people are afraid to use flexibility measures because if they remain unemployed after that, the salary that they received over the last months affects the amount of their unemployment [compensation].

UKnowledge at Wharton: According to a 2008 report by the trade unions Comisiones Obreras and UGT, Spanish women earn 27.7% less than men do. A report prepared by IESE and Adecco, the temporary employment agency, analyzed trends in the average salary in the European Union between 2003 and 2008. The report found that the salary gap between men and women dropped by 3.6 percentage points [over that period], from 38% [in 2003] to 34.4% [in 2008], but remained substantial. How would you explain the salary differential between men and women in the same jobs?  

De Las Heras: The salary differential can be explained in various ways:

a) When they negotiate, women tend to prioritize flexibility [in their working conditions] and their personal [or career] development, rather than [higher] salary. As you know, when you establish one priority (for example, flexibility), the rest of the variables that you are negotiating about (such as salary) wind up at a lower level.

b) Women tend to occupy a larger number of staff positions (administration, systems management, research and development), even if they are at the same executive level as men. Staff positions tend to have lower salaries, no matter who holds them.

c) Generally speaking, it is much easier for men to “sell” their achievements to others. We women tend to share our contributions to an achievement with the other members of our team. So men are more forceful when it is time for them to evaluate their own [individual] contributions.

De Anca: Women usually make more applications for part-time work days; and since their seniority is lower, this factor influences the salary they earn. In addition, they remain on the job for less time because they take maternal leaves and leaves without pay.

Inequality at work comes because it is women who are more often burdened with reconciling their work [with their personal lives]. When the two sexes equal out in that respect [in the future], their salaries will be equal.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Is the difficulty of reconciling work and personal life a major issue still hanging over the future of this society?

De Las Heras: Yes, of course. In Spain, we are generating social poverty, which is the opposite of social capacity. In working to increase our economic status, we are casting aside social factors. Social capital comprises relationships involving friendships, affiliations and commitments that are made by people who contribute to a common project. And this is disappearing in the country as a result of the issues that remain to be resolved: flexibility in space and in working hours; in paternal and maternal leaves; and in various ways of working and contributing. So long as we do not resolve these issues, we will continue to be the European country that lags furthest behind in terms of productivity; [the country that] has the greatest number of work weeks, the lowest birth rates, and lowest academic performance rates among children; has alarming rates of academic failure; and has high rates of obesity and stress among children. All of this could be prevented if parents spent more time – and did a better job – with their children.

UKnowledge at Wharton: What qualities and added value can a female manager offer when it comes to managing a company under current conditions?

De Anca: You shouldn’t talk about the qualities of women per se; you cannot generalize, since there are [always] some managers whose policies work out well and others who do poorly. Although there are qualities that are intrinsic to women, such as intuition, it is clear that men can also have intuition and sensitivity.

Certainly, many women face frequent change, for example, in motherhood. On the other hand, mobility often continues to be a decision made by men, and it is women who follow them. As a result, men have more experience when it is time to deal with changes in their career path. Now, during the crisis, they have more resources, and are more used to reinventing themselves. In these situations, managerial programs are very useful because they help you recycle yourself.

Generally speaking, women are usually quite good in areas of entrepreneurialism — with creativity and development and, above all, in small companies. There is a strong tradition of women starting new businesses in times of crisis.

These days, there is a lot of demand from women who ask for micro-loans through associations such as Omega (the Organization of Business Women and Active Management), and Aseme (the Spanish Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Madrid), in order to create new businesses that manage to keep society moving forward.

De Las Heras: Generally speaking, we can confirm that the economic contribution of women is much more necessary nowadays than ever, since women have a global vision that enables them to be more open to the unknown, without being influenced by prejudices – [an] ability that is so necessary for contributing value in times of trouble like today. Women are prepared to listen and to ask questions; they value creativity and contrary opinions. They have no trouble speaking openly when they don’t know something. They are not afraid to make a mistake, so they are often audacious and flexible. Women stand out for their ability to do several things at a time, and to achieve very good things, which is so necessary during hard times such as now, when there are no predefined prescriptions [for solving our problems].

When times are hard, as they are today, solutions don’t come from great heroes, but generally from teams working together. And women like to promote teamwork among the members of a team. Experience shows that when women are in charge of teams, they function more harmoniously because women naturally create consensus. They tend to distribute information with their colleagues, and they are more conciliatory when it is time to make decisions and set priorities. Unlike many men, women do not see participation and delegation [of responsibility] as a threat to their authority, but as an integral part of their responsibility as managers.

UKnowledge at Wharton: Do you believe that public institutions are doing enough to develop equality between men and women in managerial positions?

De Las Heras: I believe that public institutions have been doing a lot more than in the previous decade but it is still not enough. Just as there are incentives for companies to comply with environmental quality norms, there should be incentives for flexibility. For example, for making it easier for companies to offer more options for working at home or working part-time, by providing tax reductions. Another crucial subject is the need for providing quality day-care centers at reasonable prices, as well as incentives for companies to provide these services.

In any case, this involves a change in the mentality of our society, in which men and women must both be responsible for the training and education of their children. That change in mentality and habits is progressing slowly. There is still room to move forward, but we must be happy with the road we have already gone on.

De Anca: The laws promulgated in recent years have done a lot to increase parity, especially in some European countries, such as the Nordic countries.