article banner
International Business Report (IBR)

Why still so few women in senior management?

Francesca Lagerberg explains how businesses can break the stagnation


Just one in seven delegates at the annual World Economic Forum gathering was a woman this year. This statistic alone explains why the issue of women in businesses inspires so much passion and debate, emphasising that the path from the classroom to the boardroom is anything but straightforward.

Ironically, attendees in Davos looked at the role improved gender balance can have on businesses’ bottom lines, highlighting the example of the car market in which women influence 85% of purchases worldwide. Involving women at all stages of the production process, from design, to engineering, to marketing, could help businesses create products and services that appeal to both genders.

We have been tracking the proportion of women in senior management since 2004 and the research this year finds that the proportion of women in the most senior roles has stagnated at 24% – the same as the result in 2012, 2009 and 2007. The question this raises is: what are the roadblocks on the path to senior management?

The discussion needs to start by looking at education, an essential building block of any career. We find some positive news here, with female participation in education soaring in many economies over recent years, particularly emerging markets, which have traditionally lagged behind. In fact, we have now reached a point where there are more women studying in tertiary education than men, although whether the subjects they are studying prepare them appropriately for jobs in senior management is debatable.

The figures gathered this year around the gender of graduates being hired by businesses add a further layer of complexity to this discussion; just 21% of the typical global graduate intake are women. Businesses are closing themselves off to a huge swathe of potential workers – talent which numerous studies suggests would help them grow faster.

The focus then turns to what should be done.  Support amongst businesses for quotas is steadily growing and regulation in Europe seems to be moving in that direction. Personally, I have mixed feelings about quotas – if they shine a spotlight on the shortfall of women on boards then that is helpful, but we certainly do not want to get to a point where women are simply brought in to make up the numbers. I am more interested in what businesses can do to facilitate the path of women to the boardroom.

At Grant Thornton, we have developed the Women’s International Leadership Link, a programme to support and mentor women, but just one in ten businesses around the world have launched something comparable. Schemes that offer tangible support for mothers looking to juggle pressures at work and at home are pretty thin on the ground. And businesses should also see what they can do about getting more graduates through the door. You would expect a fair proportion of a business’s future leaders to come from its pool of graduates, so getting more women starting at that level will increase the odds of them making it to the top.

Businesses will see the benefits of widening their net; tapping into more candidates means higher chances of recruiting star performers, the people who will ultimately determine their growth trajectory.

Francesca Lagerberg is global leader for tax services at Grant Thornton.