Ivana Gažić: Female leadership in traditional economies

In October 2019, the CEO of Zagreb Stock Exchange Ivana Gažić was invited by the MBA Croatia Society to give a lecture for its members . She decided to use the opportunity to speak about her experiences as a female leader in a traditional economy, which she considers Croatia to be. Since then, many women have approached her to say how encouraged they have felt by the lecture, so she turned it into a post for our blog.

We can hear in numerous speeches by politicians, leaders and journalists that giving women an equal place and role will bring multiple benefits to both society and the economy. Arguments such as: “full participation of women increases political stability, decreases possibility of conflicts and increases GDP” or “Participation of women in management increases ROE by 35% and creates more value for the shareholders”; are very common. This is especially mentioned since ESG (“Environment Social Governance”) investing became increasingly popular. Unfortunately, it is obvious that this idea has not sufficiently sunk into our everyday business environment.
The data shows that women in the EU are paid 16.2% less due to lower hourly earnings, working fewer hours in paid jobs and lower employment rates.

Although the gender pay gap in Croatia seems to be lower than the average gap in the EU-28, management and supervisory positions are overwhelmingly held by men. Within each sector men are more often promoted than women, and paid better as a consequence. This trend culminates at the very top, where amongst CEOs only 6.3 % are women.

Employment of women seems to especially problematic. In the EU-28 employment of women stands at 67.1% and has increased by 6% in last 10 years. In Croatia, 60.1% women are employed, while in neighbouring Slovenia this percentage amounts to 71%. Employment gives women power, independence and life options. Especially worrying is the trend of encouraging women to stop working with some local measures nominally created to increase the birth rate.

Besides standing low in top positions, some other data shows the poor position of women in Croatian society:
– according to 2017 data, while 73% of judges in municipality courts are female, only 40% are in Supreme Court and 23% in Constitutional Court
– in our health care, 63% of all doctors are female but out of 55 hospitals only 8 hospital directors are female
– in media, only 12% of the economic or political content is presented by females.

To sum up, after reviewing numerous articles, there are 4 main areas in which women are having trouble in business:

Unconscious bias happens because people unconsciously take gender into account when making decisions about hiring, advancement and rewards. Many people consider themselves unbiased but this is rarely the case. If you want to find out how you stand, you can take one of the many online tests available.

Being the one and only woman in the workplace does not really make a difference. In order to have possibility to change corporate culture (of the Board, Company, Department…), evidence has shown that the “magical” number is three.
The following graph shows why having more women in the workplace makes such a difference. “Woman Onlys” will experience far more questioning of their competence, they are more likely to be overlooked, disrespected and excluded.

Source: McKinsey, Women in the Workplace 2019

In my experience, even as a CEO, everyday discrimination and microaggressions are commonplace. They include the questioning of a woman’s ability, judging based on their appearance, telling women how to behave, the way in which they are physically approached or addressed.

The main benchmarks to detect a bad environment for women: participation in the workforce; especially in professional and technical jobs, gender pay gap, lack of women in leading positions and quantity of unpaid work.

I find this graph especially compelling:

Source: McKinsey, Women in the Workplace 2019

Far more women in managerial positions have full time working partners than men. This shows that a woman’s likelihood for a work and life balance is much harder to achieve, so women are more likely to do “double shifts” just to have the private and family life each individual deserves. Even when having to work that hard, women in managerial positions are viewed unjustly.

Even when in a top position (6.3% chance in Croatia), society – I will not say men, as very often, women are guilty of  the same- judges women. They have to be constantly aware that they will be anticipated as lower in hierarchy than theyactually are, instead of being proactive women will be considered aggressive, they will be less likely to get a raise, they will be judged by their appearance, people will be threatened by women instead of admiring them.

It is no wonder that role of CEO can get lonely sometimes and in a woman’s case, even lonelier.


For difficult problems there are no simple solutions. I have shown in this article many aspects that shape the prospects of women in business, some of them starting from the first day a woman is born. At the same time, the role of women in society and business has changed so immensely in last 50 years – like never before in human history, that anticipation of further change and loss in current positions can create nervousness in our environment.

What is helping us, ladies, is that evidence has shown that companies having fair representation of women leaders are less prone to unreasonable risks and more successful in the longer run and this is what counts for everybody – investors, governments, as well as boards.

Companies are starting to structurally solve the problem of low participation of women in lower managerial positions, which will, at the end, result in a solid pool of talent at higher positions.

In the meanwhile, we should discuss, address and try to solve any obstacle that exists for women to succeed.

One of the small steps from the side of the Zagreb Stock Exchange, is including gender issues into the new Corporate Governance Code. Starting from 2020, listed companies, will for the first time report on the planned participation of female board members and what measures they are taking to achieve these numbers.