Achieving gender parity in senior leadership remains slow. Here's 3 ways to accelerate progress

Stacey Davies
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Grant Thornton’s latest report, "Pathways to Parity: 20 Years of Women in Business Insights", marks two decades of dedicated research aimed at monitoring and measuring the representation of women in senior management roles within mid-market companies worldwide.

While the percentage of women in senior management roles globally has increased from 19.4% to 33.5% over two decades, progress remains disappointingly slow with just a 1.1 percentage point increase from last year. At this rate, parity won't be achieved until 2053.

It's not all doom and gloom though. The conversation 20 years ago, when businesses were considering appointing a woman to a senior role, has changed. Today, women are more empowered to make decisions to support their personal and career priorities due to flexible working arrangements and acceptance of different models of leadership that create space for women to show up as their authentic selves in senior roles.  

The theme of International Women’s Day (IWD) 2024, “Inspire Inclusion”, emphasizes the importance of diversity and empowerment in all aspects of society. It is a “call for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected”. Promoting diversity in leadership is one of the key pillars of “Inspire Inclusion”.

Our 2024 report builds on last year’s theme of The Push for Parity and identifies three clear pathways for businesses to accelerate progress towards gender parity in senior management.

1. Let the right people lead the way

The person responsible for leading DE&I is key to increasing the percentage of senior management roles held by women. Both male and female CEOs often take a leadership role on DE&I. However, leading alone is not effective for increasing the percentage of women in senior positions. For every senior management role that leads on DE&I, the percentage of women in senior management positions increases when a member of the C-suite, of any gender, leads alongside a senior female leader.  

Research participants outlined the importance of this female voice as they bring vital lived experience. However, just as important as the role and gender of the people who are leading and have responsibility for DE&I, is their level of commitment. DE&I must become integral to a company’s culture to affect change. Success requires all senior leaders (both men and women) in an organisation to collaborate, drive it forward and get the whole business behind it.

2. Strategies for success

To achieve parity of women in senior management roles, businesses must have a DE&I strategy in place. The most successful strategy is one which focuses on DE&I alone, independent of a broader ESG strategy. Mid-market firms with a DE&I strategy, but no ESG strategy, have the highest percentage of senior management roles held by women (38%) - slightly more than businesses which have both a DE&I strategy and an ESG strategy (36%). If businesses do not have a DE&I strategy or an ESG strategy, the percentage drops to 28%.

Without a strategy, and a clear path to DE&I, you won't have the backing of the senior leadership driving it. Having a specific DE&I strategy enables a deeper focus on practical, actionable initiatives to drive change towards equity. It should be embedded in the organisation's culture and values, which also aligns to the business objectives.

We’re all familiar with the old saying, “what gets measured gets done”. This rings true when it comes to women in business, as much as it does with any other element of business performance. Understanding progress, and measuring success, is a crucial part of any DE&I strategy. Analysis of the impact different measurements have on the percentage of senior management roles held by women, shows very little variation. If there are clear indicators of DE&I performance being measured, businesses will outperform the global benchmark.

To ensure measures and progress are discussed and challenged, it’s essential businesses have a psychologically safe environment which can lead to important behaviour changes, allowing women to feel more confident speaking up, sharing views, and challenging decisions.  

3. Back to office, a backwards step?

The final pathway to parity is the ability to work flexibly. There has been a dramatic shift back to office-based working among global mid-market firms in the past 12 months. 47% of businesses are now primarily office-based (compared to 36% last year) and 45% are hybrid (compared to 53% last year). This is potentially being driven by male CEOs; 50% of businesses with a male CEO are predominantly office-based, compared to 40% of female led businesses. Businesses in which workers are primarily office-based are the only ones where the percentage of women in senior management roles drops below the global benchmark.

To encourage and retain female talent in the workplace, businesses need to carefully consider the working practices they offer. Having choices in where we work brings significant benefits to women in business, not just at a senior level, but also to the talent pipeline. However, pairing this flexibility with a culture which is supportive and understanding is vital. This includes building workplace environments that guard against potential pitfalls of hybrid working. 

A call to action

As key drivers of the global economy, mid-market companies are well placed to make significant changes in a short period of time, and it is their agility to do so that sets them apart. If they adopt these pathways to parity in significant numbers, based on our experience, we believe achieving 50% representation of women in senior management within the next five years is within reach.

While we’ve seen some positive change over the last 20 years, we also know that sustainable change takes an intentional effort and clear accountability from leadership at every organisation.  

In the words of world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist, Gloria Steinem, "The story of women's struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights."

Organisations, groups, and individuals worldwide can all play a part. Grant Thornton urges businesses to heed the call for action and seize the opportunity to drive meaningful change. As the global economy evolves, maintaining focus on gender parity is essential to ensure an inclusive, prosperous and equitable future for all.