Women in business across the globe

This year sees a 1.1pp increase in the percentage of senior management roles held by women, up from 32.4% in 2023 to 33.5%. When we began tracking the percentage 20 years ago, just 19.4% of senior positions were held by women. Since the pandemic, progress has accelerated but it still remains slow. Without a greater focus on the issue, women’s parity in senior management won’t be reached until 2053 at the current rate.

Senior leaders at Grant Thornton firms we spoke to for this report expressed disappointment at the rate of progress. But there is reason for optimism. Performance is currently ahead of the 20-year trend line, and there has been a clear acceleration post pandemic. This has likely been driven primarily by changing working practices which, although originally forced into place at a more widespread level by Covid-19, opened people’s eyes to the possibility of working in different ways.

Michelle Alphonso headshot imageMichelle Alphonso, Partner, National transaction advisory services and Private equity leader at Grant Thornton Canada comments: “The conversation 20 years ago, when businesses were considering appointing a woman to a senior role, has changed. There is now greater empowerment of women to make decisions to support their own personal and career priorities, including flexible working arrangements, and acceptance of different models of leadership that creates space for women to show up as their authentic selves in leadership roles. We need to take forward what we learned from the pandemic and support working practices that increase the number of women and diverse leaders in senior management roles.”  

Shifts in roles globally

This year marked a significant drop in the percentage of female CEOs to 19% from 28% last year. At large corporates there were significant resignations in 2022/23 and leaders in the mid-market look as though they followed suit.[i] When female CEOs at larger firms were asked about their reasons for leaving these roles, they cited public pressure, caring responsibilities and sometimes that they felt they needed to behave more like men in these roles.[ii]

Karitha Ericson agrees that this could also be linked to how women feel they need to act in these roles: “Female CEOs have often faced significant challenges to get into such roles in the first place. I think there are different expectations of female and male CEOs and, generally, it is more difficult for women to be perceived positively when they speak up or disagree. This could lead to the belief that female CEOs are not as clear and decisive - traits that are typically associated with male CEOs.”

Our research confirms that businesses that have more women in senior management may emerge more strongly in 2024 if they create a psychologically safe environment where women feel able to speak as their true selves. 

Priyanka Gulati, Partner, Human capital consulting at Grant Thornton Bharat feels that the recent economic crisis has prompted engrained biases to reemerge: “When you have an uncertain economic situation, the number of female senior leaders drops because businesses think they need someone who is aggressive and assertive.

Women are seen as more collaborative, and in times of crisis, that’s often not the management style businesses have turned to.”

Maddie Wollerton Blanks, Director, People consulting, Grant Thornton UK, highlights that when women do leave these roles, the pipeline is not conducive to getting another woman in to replace them: “Gender pay gap reporting shows us that while there may be some women in senior management positions, there are not enough at that level or in mid management roles. This lack of a pipeline will likely mean that if a CEO leaves a position, a woman won’t be coming up behind her to take that role. This makes the situation of female management fragile.” 

Since 2012, there has been better news across other roles, including HR Director (from 11% in 2012 to 46% in 2024), Chief Financial Officer (12% to 39%) and Sales Director (4% to 26%).  

While it’s positive to see that, since 2012, the percentage of women holding each senior role has increased, it’s essential to take a closer look at where the balance of power lies. The fact that CEO has seen such a low level of increase in the past 12 years suggests that although women are increasingly part of the senior management team, they are not necessarily in the roles which hold the most power. 

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i. euronews.com - The Great Break-up': Why female leaders are ditching their companies - 23.02.24
ii. telegraph.co.uk - Why high-flying women face less time at the top than men - 23.01.24