Women in leadership: Separating optimism from reality

Women remain significantly underrepresented in executive roles, and gender equity in mid-level leadership has not recovered since the start of the pandemic.

Companies are becoming more aware of the importance of a heterogeneous workforce, but changing attitudes about diversity in junior and senior roles have not necessarily led to action when it comes to hiring women for leadership roles.

A new, global report shows that progress has slowed since the COVID-19 pandemic, unconscious bias continues to impede such hiring, and that attributes perceived as critical for leadership remain gendered.

The report, Women in Leadership: Why Perception Outpaces the Pipeline and What to Do About It, was conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value and women's leadership network Chief, in cooperation with Oxford Economics. It surveyed 2,500 executives, managers, and professionals across 12 countries and 10 industries.

The report noted that for executive roles, women are receiving more opportunities. "In 2023, there are more women in the C-suite and sitting on executive boards," the report said.

However, while gender-focused interventions are making waves at the top, movement in mid-level roles is sluggish, the report said. "These are hard-won achievements, but they are overshadowed by the fact that women remain acutely underrepresented in the middle management tiers."

Even though more men are optimistic that women now have the same opportunities to advance in historically male-dominated fields, this view is not substantiated. And one set of perceptions remains an obstacle, according to the report: "Men are expected to be results-oriented, and women [are expected to be] people-oriented".

For some women, sticking it out so they can potentially land a senior leadership role is not worth the price, the report says. As a result, many women have changed their priorities and become more benefits-focused.

Almost half of women surveyed said they would take a 10% salary reduction for a job that offers greater flexibility, purpose, or more supportive management, the report said. For companies that offer very few perks other than competitive pay, they may risk losing talent if they don't find more to offer.

COVID-19 slowed progress

In the pandemic's early stages, many women left their jobs, as associated stressors caused them to "reflect on their careers", the report said. When the pandemic was at its peak, the number of organisations setting targets for equal representation of women tumbled from 66% to 48%, the report said.

"Even in 2023, survey respondents rank the pandemic as the most serious disruption facing women at work; recognition of the disproportionate and persistent toll it has taken on them," the report said. The pipeline still has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, the report emphasised, with women in senior vice-president roles falling from 18% in 2019 to 14%, and vice-president roles falling from 19% to 16%.

"If organisations are making significant progress in the advancement of women to top leadership positions, the percentage of female executives should be higher," the report says. "At a minimum, we should have seen a rebound to 2019 levels, yet that hasn't happened."

Turning the tide

From the report, here are four actions companies can take to help achieve gender equity:

  • Re-examine roles: Organisations should design leadership roles based on the strategic priorities of the business and the skills and aspirations of their top talent. "This allows individuals to give full expression to their talent in ways that work for them, are fair and equitable, and in tune with their needs and aspirations of the business."
  • Reframe discussions around gender: "Move beyond well-meaning but vague requests for action by quantifying the concrete economic gains that accrue from righting gender imbalances," the report said. And this reframing should extend beyond the C-suite.
  • Less words, more action: "The more transparent organisations are about their actions, results, and how they intend to accelerate progress, the more permission they give managers and others to do the same."
  • Enact measures addressing gender equity in middle management as well: "Organisations need to gather much richer intelligence on the experience of work for women in the early and middle career stages. … This way, funding and resources won't be wasted on initiatives that miss the mark."

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