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Women in business 2021: A window of opportunity

Stacey Davies Stacey Davies

The number of women holding senior leadership positions in mid-market businesses globally has hit 31% despite the COVID-19 pandemic affecting economies around the world, according to Grant Thornton’s latest annual Women in Business report.

Big breakthroughs

Research1 shows that 30% is the minimum representation needed to change decision making processes, so this is an important milestone particularly given the global figure stubbornly remained at 29% for the last two years, and ranged anywhere between 19% and 25% since our research began in 2004.

Further, in 2021, a significant landmark has been reached, with nine in 10 businesses worldwide having at least one woman in their senior management teams. By comparison, there has been a three-percentage-point improvement in this figure since 2020, and in 2017 that figure stood at two-thirds, with only 66% of businesses having at least one female leader.

This is certainly a continuation of the positive trend seen over the past five years, and could have a number of causes. Work by businesses on their diversity and inclusion policies is paying off, but it is also possible that the coronavirus pandemic has emphasised the importance of diverse leadership in times of crisis.

Another encouraging finding is the types of leadership roles women are occupying. Global figures reveal higher numbers of women across operational C-suite roles compared to last year, with the proportion of female CEOs up 6% to 26%, female CFOs also up 6% to 36%, and female COOs up 4% to 22%.

The impact of COVID-19

However, questions remain over the impact of the pandemic on women, particularly working mothers. UN data shows that, before COVID-19, women did three times as much unpaid housework as men, and mounting evidence indicates that the pandemic is only increasing this disparity, as well as adding the extra responsibilities of childcare and home schooling while schools are closed2.

But there has been a rapid paradigm shift over the past 12 months that will benefit women going forward. In this year’s report, 59% of respondents say that new working practices as a result of COVID-19 have increased the leadership roles that women have been able to play within their organisations, and over two-thirds (69%) of respondents agree that these new initiatives will benefit women’s career trajectories long-term.

Globally, a massive 92% of businesses say they are taking action to ensure the engagement and inclusion of their employees against the negative backdrop of the pandemic; a big part of this has been a sharp shift in attitudes towards how, where and when employees do their jobs.

Employers have become more flexible about working from home arrangements and many women have perhaps flourished in this environment given they have had to be more agile than most throughout their careers due to parental leave and juggling subsequent childcare commitments.

Leadership styles have also come under scrutiny due to the demands of the pandemic. Engagement with staff, a greater understanding of people’s personal needs and circumstances, and support for mental and emotional health have been more vital than ever. As these ‘softer’ management styles, which are traditionally perceived as more ‘female’ than ‘male’, have proved their worth, a greater appreciation of, and a greater need for, diverse leadership has emerged.

Another huge positive emerging from the research is that 90% of executives within the organisations that are taking action to improve their work culture will continue or even increase their emphasis on these actions after the pandemic. On average, across the action areas, 46% expect the emphasis to remain the same and 44% expect the emphasis to increase once the pandemic is over.

Some of these areas include instilling new working practices to better engage all employees, adapting existing learning and development programmes to the current environment and promoting more flexibility for employees.

A window of opportunity

Fantastic progress has been made since our research started 17 years ago, and while passing the 30% mark for women in senior roles globally is a mission-critical milestone for businesses, it’s not the end goal and these gains can easily be lost. If organisations want to leverage the benefits of a better gender balance, they must continue to take action to enable women to realise their ambitions.

Now more than ever, businesses need to stay focused on what is enabling women to progress to leadership positions, so that they can move forward rather than back as a result of the global pandemic.