Globally, women hold just 24% of senior leadership roles—a significant concern of diversity. How can businesses get more women in senior positions? Here’s a rundown on the issue.

Recent years have seen us celebrate significant milestones for women in leadership. The USA elected its first woman vice president, Kamala Harris. Filipina journalist Maria Ressa became a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Greta Thunberg was TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year.

But in the larger picture, these are outliers—not commonalities. A significant gender gap still exists when it comes to senior leadership roles in business. Around the world, women hold just 24% of executive-level positions. Meanwhile, female workers represent 45% of the S&P labour force, but account for only 4% of its CEOs.

Looking further, of all Fortune 500 companies, just 44 have women CEOs. And of all the top 239 venture capital-backed companies worth over $1 billion, just 24 have women founders.

There’s a dearth of women in senior leadership roles—and the issue is global. Let’s talk about the gender gap that exists at the executive level and the steps that companies can take to address it.

The Statistics on Women Leaders

In Australia, there have been strides of progress for gender equality, but women representation remains a concern. For starters, from 2020-2021, women made up 51% of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) dataset. Despite this, only 19.4% of them had CEO positions, while 32.5% of them held key management positions.

Moreover, 22.3% of boards and governing bodies in the WGEA dataset had no female directors. Of the ASX 200 directors, just 34.2% were women as of November 2021.

Those metrics are, admittedly, better than the global statistic of women holding just 24% of senior leadership roles. But that’s still far less than an equal or equitable balance. And it’s a strange perspective in the year of 2022, especially when studies have shown that supporting women leads to better economic performance—for example, giving women entrepreneurs equal participation could lead to a 6% rise in the global GDP.

Despite that, however, women still face a stubborn glass ceiling when it comes to career advances. And a lot of that is down to a systemic issue in society—sexism.

Female Leadership vs Misogyny

There’s an inherent prejudice against women holding leadership roles, despite incompetent leaders being men more often than not. That’s in part because men are more brazen and act with more confidence—when in reality, charisma and confidence don’t always make for good leaders.

The act of companies favouring men extends all throughout a company. Women are less likely to be promoted to managerial positions, while being more likely to face sexist microaggressions. They’re also more likely to face career burnout—1 in 3 women have considered downshifting their job or stepping away from work.

This all means that women face obstacles just getting into senior leadership roles. Traits commonly associated with leadership have become viewed as traditionally “masculine,” with people resenting women if they exhibit the same characteristics. A man might be seen as assertive, while for a woman, she may be seen as bossy instead.

Moreover, the workplace itself is designed based on outdated views of gender roles, especially when it comes to domestic responsibilities. Companies view maternity and paternity leave in a negative light. They may hesitate to promote women because of the possibility of having children in the future, while requiring new fathers to return to office after far too short a time.

They also do not create accommodations for women who may struggle balancing career with home life. This century’s “hustle culture” has translated into a demand for constant availability and the ability to overperform so that superiors view you with approval. This negatively affects women relative to traditional household responsibilities.

So what should companies do to solve this diversity gap?

Getting Women into Leadership Roles

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic believes companies should be promoting more humble people with integrity. And that, interestingly enough, would lead to a higher proportion of women leaders. Women are more likely to be emotionally reliable and empathetic—two qualities integral to competent leadership.

Meanwhile, there’s no question that promoting women into executive roles benefits business. In a survey of almost 13,000 companies across 70 countries, over 57% agreed that diversity in gender led to better outcomes. Many reported increases in profit of 5–20%.

Additionally, over 54% of those companies saw improvements in creativity and innovation, with inclusivity also enhancing their reputations. And if you look at the bigger picture—a rise in female employment has a positive correlation with a country’s GDP.

But getting women into leadership roles means cultural and administrative changes from top to bottom. That starts by removing biases against women holding executive positions, and opening positions to everyone qualified, regardless of gender. Companies must commit to interviewing and hiring more women and minorities instead of promoting men who may be less competent.

Analyse the rate at which women gain promotions in your company, and make a purposeful effort to increase that rate. Pay close attention to how much work your female employees are doing versus their male counterparts—it’s likely that they’re handling more responsibilities, including supporting team members and advocating for their well-being.

Additionally, besides increasing the rate of promotion, make a commitment to a more diverse hiring pool. The more women you have in low- and mid-level positions, the more choices you have for promotion. One possible step is hosting blind resume screening—no photos or names, just qualifications.

Companies also need to take a proactive role in preparing their female employees for leadership roles. Host executive training sessions and mentorship programs, and allow more women to lead team-wide activities. Nurture women with potential by giving them challenging projects or allotting relevant responsibility. Converse with your female workers to ask what they want and need out of their current career position.

Besides this, corporations should audit their workers’ salaries and check for existing prejudice in payouts. Women still earn significantly less than their male counterparts—in 2020, it was 83 cents for women to a dollar for men. Support equitable pay, remove salary questions from job interviews, and promote transparency regarding salaries within a company.

And lastly, make it clear that your company’s culture is not one that tolerates sexism and discrimination in any form. Create an environment where women feel safe reporting microaggressions or harassment, since they trust that administrators will take appropriate action. Hold training to help people unlearn subconscious biases—existing leaders included. And listen to women advocates who have experience in this sector.

Think of your company as a garden. If you’re planting flowers only to watch them die—if your women employees aren’t advancing in their careers and are feeling burnt out—then there’s an issue with the foundations. And you’ll need to address that if you want healthy growth.

There’s no denying the benefits of having women in senior leadership positions. Besides a boost in profits and innovation, a company will also be promoting an inclusive and safe culture. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all—so it’s not only women who reap rewards. By making an environment in which your women employees thrive, everyone will benefit.

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