Women are denied promotions that lead to top CEO roles, says report

Women may be found in numbers in specific functions, but still, only make up less than 20% of global leadership teams

Not enough women are being promoted to leadership teams roles that develop the experience necessary to advance to the c-suite, according to a new report by relationship mapping and executive intelligence service BoardEx.

The Global Leadership Team Diversity Report, delivered in partnership with executive search firm Odgers Berndtson, looks at the gender balance of the key job functions of leadership teams from leading organisations across the globe.

The study of 14,850 individual leadership teams roles in companies from the top indices across 26 major countries, focused on the disciplines from which the managers and directors are drawn.

Disappointing numbers

The disappointing results show that there are not enough women in relevant leadership team role in any country to take sufficient numbers of the top spots in leading global organisations.

Women only account for 19% of leadership teams roles in major markets across the globe. Leadership team roles are predominantly in general management, but on average, these are only 11% female.

“Women may be found in numbers in specific functions, but as a whole, they still only amount for a disappointing 19% of leadership teams positions,” states Dominick Sutton, chief data officer of BoardEx and the author of the report. 

Women, on average, account for 60% of HR and 37% of legal roles across the globe, but those job functions only account for 6% and 8% of leadership team headcount, respectively. 


Gender specific functions

In contrast, general management roles makeup 44% of leadership teams but are only 11% female.  Indeed, if every woman in all the leadership teams within these 26 countries moved into general management, they would still only account for 43% of these key roles.

Higher levels of female representation are not solely a North-West European or North American phenomenon, as significant progress has been found across the globe.

Australia leads the pack, with 27% female leadership teams, and Malaysia has 22% female leadership, as does South Africa.  The US and the UK come in a point lower with 21% female representation within their leadership teams. Surprisingly, these are lower than you would see at board level for those countries.

At its worst, the level of female participation in some leadership teams across the globe is only 4%, and at best 27%

“Building a pipeline of leadership talent that is gender diverse is both a moral obligation and good business sense,” said Kester Scrope, CEO of Odgers Berndtson.

“This is where executive search plays a critical role in addressing gender inequality. The best headhunters can identify diverse candidate pools to ensure clients have access to as broad a slate of people as possible. This is particularly important for the roles that most often lead to a seat at the top table and is essential for building high-performing leadership teams and cultures that have the skillset mix to stay ahead of competitors.”

Prioritise equality

Nicole Sahin, Founder and CEO of Globalization Partners: This research shows that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired.

“From recruitment, to development, to women-friendly policies, this research reminds us about the importance of prioritising equality across every aspect of the organisation, to ensure women’s progress is accelerated further. After all, there is so much to gain from companies focusing on creating a diverse, inclusive culture that attracts talent of all genders, ages, sexualities, and ethnicities.” 

Time and time again, reports show that organisations that have a high percentage of diversity financially outperform their competitors. More diverse companies will see better team results. According to a 2020 Global Employee Survey, 90% of the global employees who describe their companies as diverse report higher levels of happiness, inclusion, and trust.

Said Sahin: “Organisations that fail to live and breathe the values that deliver diversity will increasingly impair their own ability to recruit top talent. I’ve seen first-hand the powerful results that occur when people with different perspectives work together. By striving for equal, inclusive, and diverse organisations, we can work towards a better, fairer world.”


Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President at Skillsoft: “Women are still largely under-represented in the STEM arena and even less so in STEM leadership teams. The reality is that – even in 2020 – it’s so much more difficult for women to climb the career ladder. With persistent unconscious bias that women lack the confidence to apply for promotions or that they are simply not good enough to hold leadership positions, women have to work much harder than men to prove their ability.

“Some women even believe that to be a good leader or be chosen as one they need to exhibit male traits. This isn’t the case at all. In fact, research by McKinsey & Company found that organisations that had more gender diversity on their executive teams were 15% more likely to experience above-average profitability than other companies. Improving gender diversity clearly makes business sense.

“Women add a different dynamic to male leaders and there’s no reason why more women can’t be the next Indra Nooyi or Ginni Rometty.”



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