News & Analysis

Women on Top: A Distant Dream? 

The latest study by IBM and its research cohort says equal opportunities as a sentiment exists but actual advancement remains questionable

The latest study by IBM and its research cohort says equal opportunities as a sentiment exists but actual advancement remains questionable) The world believes that women have an equal opportunity to reach leadership positions but these sentiments haven’t actually driven significant changes towards making it a reality, given that biases continue to be a barrier in most organizations. These are some of the findings of a research piloted by organizations led by IBM. 

The report prepared by IBM, the Institute for Business Value (IBV) and Chief, a networking platform for female executives, says just the sentiments around gender equality aren’t enough to drive actual advancements. Organizations need to break down biases through a mature approach to gender parity and create structures that work for women and men equally. 

The IBM Institute for Business Value, which conducts a global survey every other year to assess the opportunities and barriers for women’s advancement at work, says that in its 2023 edition, 2,500 individuals participated, making it a longitudinal study one of the largest of its kind, encompassing 12 countries and 10 industries. 

Gender parity remains decades away

One of the key takeaways from the survey is that the optimism around gender parity is belied by the facts, which show there aren’t enough women in the middle-management tiers, putting future leadership attainment in peril. At the current rate of change, gender parity remains decades away. 

Unconscious biases continue to permeate the workplace, and attributes perceived as critical for leadership remain gendered—men are expected to be results oriented, and women, people oriented, is another finding of the survey, which is now in its third year of operation. Yet another takeaway is that companies that claim to be gender equity leaders reported a 19% higher growth of revenues. 

Lindsay Kaplan, co-founder of Chief says accountability will not happen if nobody is actually demanding it. it’s not going to happen because it’s a lot easier to go back to what we know,” she says. However, things are turning around, says the report pointing out that in 2023, more women in the C-suite are sitting on executive boards. 

These numbers for both the C-suite and the Board stands at 12%, which at best can be termed as a marginal increase with parity nowhere in sight. However, they do signal momentum forward. What’s distressing to note though is that not enough of these women are making it to the next level. 

However, not everything is bad out there

In 2023, we saw the largest drop (of 10 points) in the percentage of women moving from junior professionals to senior professionals. Not only is this the most substantial thinning out from one role to the next, it is the largest decrease we have seen in our surveys. And that means there are not enough women in the pipeline for future senior leadership roles, it said adding that at this rate, it would take over three decades to achieve gender parity at leadership levels. 

In the 2019 edition of the report, it was confirmed that women remained significantly under-represented in leadership positions at work despite economic opportunities fueled by the longest running bull market in history. Two years later, the study pointed to women leaving the workplace in the post-pandemic scenario. 

The soaring mental, physical, and emotional load of the pandemic prompted many women to reflect on their careers—were the pressures worth it, or should they be doing something else—a stocktaking that contributed to the departure of professional women in the Great Resignation, the report pointed out. 

However, competitive organizations responded by adjusting work practices, enabling flexible and remote work where conditions allowed and creating special return-to-work programs to ease reentry for those who took leaves of absence from their careers. While not exclusively intended for women, these measures helped many continue working. More organizations have embraced these practices over the past two years. “Because you are already disadvantaged as it pertains to women, you’ve got to work twice as hard to get more women to come back into the workforce,” says Deidre Drake Former CHRO, Board Director, US Cellular. 

Corporate agenda must be matched with metrics

In spite of the fact that data corroborates that gender equality can be a performance enhancer, companies have not taken the difficult steps to enable inclusivity in leadership. By dragging their feet, they risk eroding the progress made over the last few years, as evidenced by the dips in the pipeline of female talent.

These dips are destined to get deeper. Our study shows in just the next 12 months, as many as 30% of women say they plan to actively seek a new job. 30% expect to leave their jobs temporarily to care for their family. Nearly as many, 27%, anticipate having to resign for physical or mental health reasons. And 24% simply say they plan to leave the workforce permanently.

The report lists out four steps that leaders need to take if they’re serious about achieving gender equality across an organization. They need to design roles at the top that work for top talent as advancement is not just about having more seats at the table for women but about re-examining thoughtfully the leadership positions and the systems that support them. 

The second point revolves around changing the dialogue around gender whereby companies need to reframe women’s leadership advancement in a language that compels action around business results. Which means it won’t suffice just setting the strategy as many companies today claim advancing women as part of their agenda but without directives and metrics. 

The fourth and final aspect to create gender equality is to disentangle the messy mid-hierarchy of these organizations.  When we talk about gender parity in leadership, it’s common to focus on the most senior roles. It’s much more challenging to enact measures that tackle gender parity across the full leadership pipeline, says the report.

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