While a pandemic-prompted change in working practices has brought about some progress for women in senior leadership, progress on the overall number of women in senior leadership continues to be slow. Grant Thornton’s latest research report, The Push for Parity reveals it has only increased half a percentage point to 32.4% across the globe in the past year, and only 13% since the research was first undertaken in 2004. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap report, it will take another 132 years to address the global gender gap!
On International Women's Day (IWD), we celebrate the achievements of women and recognise the work that still needs to be done to promote gender equality. The theme for this year's IWD, "Embrace Equity," emphasises the importance of challenging gender biases and stereotypes to promote gender equality, and to start talking about why equal opportunities are not enough.
Equity vs equality
This is where the concepts of equity and equality come in. Equality refers to treating everyone the same, regardless of their differences. While equality is important, it does not take into account the unique challenges and systemic barriers that women face in reaching senior management positions. For example, women may be subject to unconscious biases in the workplace that can affect their promotion opportunities. They may also face cultural expectations and stereotypes that suggest they are less competent or capable than their male counterparts.
Equity, on the other hand, recognises these challenges and aims to provide women with the support they need to overcome them, to thrive and achieve the same goals. Promoting gender equity involves providing women with access to the tools they need, based on their personal circumstances. Equality is the objective, and equity is how we'll get there.
Diversity makes dollars and sense
Organisations that prioritise gender equity benefit from a more diverse and inclusive workforce that can drive innovation, productivity, and profitability. A diverse workforce can bring a range of perspectives and ideas, leading to better decision-making and problem-solving.
Moreover, companies with higher levels of gender diversity have been shown to perform better financially. Research Grant Thornton conducted in 2015 revealed that companies with diverse executive Boards offer higher returns on investment compared with those run solely by all-males. The study covered listed companies in India, UK and US and estimates the opportunity cost for companies with male-only executive Boards (in terms of lower returns on assets) at a staggering US$655 billion in 2014.
Increasing diversity, at a senior level and beyond, is not only the right thing to do commercially, it’s the responsible thing to do. Our research suggests mid-market businesses must push for parity, and quickly. Intentional action from businesses to increase the percentage of women in senior leadership is needed to accelerate progress. In addition, the increasing emphasis on corporate responsibility and global standards is putting pressure on firms to form diverse leadership teams, and not doing so will make it more difficult to raise capital and attract investors.
It's not just about flexibility…
Our research shows that many mid-market businesses have focused on succession planning to get more women into senior leadership positions, including implementing programmes for mentoring, coaching, leadership development, and wellbeing. Businesses should now focus their attention on developing more transparent pathways to leadership and more transparency across recruitment, promotions, and performance. Clarity and equal opportunity regarding every aspect of leadership roles, from recruitment to performance reviews, is crucial.
Additionally, a significant boost to the number of women in leadership roles will come from more businesses committing to flexible working and developing the right organisational culture to support it. Grant Thornton’s research has found that flexible, hybrid and home-based models have the highest levels of women in senior leadership roles. In mid-market businesses that have adopted a hybrid way of working, 34% of senior leaders are women, while in businesses that are fully flexible where staff choose how they work, it’s 36%. Just 29% of senior management is female in mid-market businesses with predominantly office-based models.
However, flexible working is not without its challenges. Organisations which look to work more flexibly now, post-pandemic, must ensure they have the culture to support it. This includes building workplace cultures that guard against potential pitfalls of hybrid working, such as women being left out of critical relationship building and decision-making.
There are worrying perceptions emerging from men about the risks to women’s careers of flexible working. Men who work in a flexible environment perceive much higher risks to women’s career progression than women do. As the majority of senior management teams are still male, there is a risk that strategic business decisions could be made based on these perceptions, rather than the lived experience of women. This is where the overarching firm culture becomes critical, and, in the push for parity, we must ensure no one gets left behind.
How can your business push for parity?
To accelerate progress, businesses must go beyond lip service and take decisive action. Our report offers five ways to achieve this:
- Offer flexibility: Businesses should adopt a hybrid or flexible approach, where possible, to create an environment that generates greater diversity among senior leadership teams. Pairing this with a culture which is supportive and understanding is vital
- Have greater intent: Accelerate and closely monitor initiatives designed to encourage greater diversity in senior leadership, including women only programmes
- Be transparent and nurturing: Employee wellbeing and mentoring programmes which support women into senior leadership are crucial, but this needs to be combined with greater transparency on pathways into those roles
- Act knowingly: Businesses now calling for a ‘return to the workplace’ must consider the effect that this will have on diversity, understanding that this may have unintended consequences
- Monitor and refine: Look to guard against any negative impacts of working from home for women, understanding the disadvantages it can bring and addressing them
If businesses implement these five recommendations, the mid-market will make huge strides towards creating a more gender balanced workplace.
Take decisive action
It's crucial for organisations to choose to challenge gender biases and stereotypes and commit to creating a workplace that promotes gender equity. They must be intentional and decisive to push for parity. By creating an environment where everyone feels empowered to be their best, and where women can thrive and succeed, organisations can attract and retain top talent, improve their reputation, remain resilient and build a more just and equitable world for all.
Download your copy of Grant Thornton’s latest women in business report, The Push for Parity.