A pandemic-prompted change in working practices has brought about only slight progress for women in senior leadership, according to Grant Thornton’s 2023 International Business Report (IBR) research into women in business in the global mid-market. Unless businesses develop cultures that empower people through flexible ways of working and take additional steps to support women into senior leadership positions, only 34% of senior leadership positions in mid-market businesses globally will be held by women in 2025.
While progress on the overall number of women in senior leadership continues, Grant Thornton’s latest research reveals it has been slow, increasing only half a percentage point to 32.4% in the past year, and only 13% since the research was first undertaken in 2003.
“The 30% threshold was seen as a ‘tipping point’ which would trigger an acceleration toward more gender-balanced workplaces. Given the incremental change since mid-market businesses in our research reached 30%, it is clear we now need to inject greater determination to fully reap the benefits of diversity.
Ngozi Ogwo, Managing partner/CEO of Grant Thornton Nigeria opined that mid-market players in the country should make concerted efforts to empower women in their organizations to aspire and be engaged in senior roles in the corporate environment, she says, “parity is the way to go, it is about achieving equality, equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the corporate environment, let’s consolidate the gains from breaking gender bias and increase the pace to more sustainable businesses”. She said.
Reiterating this, Karitha Ericson, the global leader of Grant Thornton network capability and culture says “The increasing emphasis on corporate responsibility and global standards is putting pressure on firms to form diverse leadership teams, and not doing so will make it more difficult to raise capital and attract investors.”
The research shows that many mid-market businesses have focused on succession planning to get more women into senior leadership positions, including implementing programmes for mentoring, coaching, leadership development, and wellbeing. Businesses should now focus their attention on developing more transparent pathways to leadership and more transparency across recruitment, promotions, and performance. “Clarity and equal opportunity regarding every aspect of leadership roles, from recruitment to performance reviews, is crucial,” says Karitha.
Additionally, a significant boost to the number of women in leadership roles will come from more businesses committing to flexible working and developing the right organisational culture to support it. Grant Thornton’s research has found that flexible, hybrid and home-based models have the highest levels of women in senior leadership roles. In mid-market businesses that have adopted a hybrid way of working, 34% of senior leaders are women, while in businesses that are fully flexible where staff choose how they work, it’s 36%. Just 29% of senior management is female in mid-market businesses with predominantly office-based models.
“With many businesses not embracing hybrid or flexible ways of working, women are being forced to consider part-time work, which could stifle their career progression,” says Karitha. “And businesses that don’t have flexible working practices tend to be less attractive workplaces to senior women.”
Amid a global skills shortage and talent crisis, businesses that adopt flexible working may also reap the benefits of improved cross-border working and access to a larger talent pool, such as people with disabilities, those living in geographically remote locations or those seeking better work/life balance.
However, flexible working is not without its challenges, says Karitha. “Businesses which already embraced this way of working thrived during the pandemic, as they were able to switch to remote working quickly. Crucially, these workplaces had the right culture to empower people to work in this way. Organisations which look to work more flexibly now, post-pandemic, must ensure they have the business culture to support it. This includes building workplace cultures that guard against potential pitfalls of hybrid working, such as women being left out of critical relationship building and decision-making.” Overall, the research found that men are more likely to say that their business encourages an open-door policy among management, while women say that this isn’t occurring as often.
Peter Bodin, CEO of GTIL notes that encouraging a diverse workforce at every level with a global focus on gender is a key focus of the Grant Thornton network strategy.
“Our commitment is to accelerate our progress in this area and to foster psychologically safe environments where everyone feels empowered to be their best,” he says. “We know we must be intentional and decisive to push for parity, and other businesses must do the same to remain robust, resilient, and relevant in the ever-changing market.”
“Greater diversity is a positive for businesses – it demonstrates they are ethical and fair, it boosts business performance, and results in better outcomes and decisions. More diversity from across borders also encourages a growth mindset – bringing wider perspectives which can spark creativity and create a better way of doing things,” says Karitha. “And if you want to be an attractive employer to good talent, diversity is critical.”