Bias is a major barrier for gender parity in leadership positions

22 August 2017 7 min. read

Bias against women remains a key factor in low levels of female representation in leadership positions. According to new research, organisations responses to developing female leaders was relatively weak, even while many are theoretically supportive of more women at the top.

Acknowledgement of the importance of diversity at the executive level has grown in recent years, with studies highlighting the benefits to businesses and society alike. The current standing for women at the top of business remains relatively poor, both in terms of their role in the executive as well as their role at board level, found to be 20.3% and 14.2% in the UK and US respectively. The importance of improvement hasn’t been lost on the business community, with the UK MCA starting research into the phenomenon.

There has been a great deal of dialogue within the consulting industry on this topic already. Big Four firm PwC recently announced that while the firm was bidding to increase the number of women breaking the glass ceiling, only 18% of their Partners are presently female. A Grant Thornton survey meanwhile estimated only a quarter of all senior leadership positions in businesses went to women, as the recruitment and promotion process remains heavily weighted in the favour of male hires.

What is the most important reason for companies to focus on developing women leaders

Korn Ferry, a global recruitment focused consultancy firm, sought to better understand how executives from US companies stand in relation their company’s ability to develop women leaders and the appreciation they have to the contribution of female leaders. This most recent study built on research performed by the firm last year, which revealed that just 5% of CEO positions and 12% of CFO positions at the top 1,000 companies in the US were in the hands of women.

Overall, respondents to the new survey, which was performed in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation as part of its 100x25 campaign, were found to be positive about the business case for women in business for developing female leaders. 51% of those polled argued greater gender diversity makes companies perform better, while 47% contended that it would allow companies to attract the best available talent regardless of gender.

How would you rate your company's ability to develop leadership

Respondents in general were concerned about their organisation’s ability to develop leaders however. 23% said their company’s ability was well below average, while a quarter said their organisation could stand improvement – meaning 48% of those questioned thought their firm was underperforming to some degree in promoting the development of female talent. Over a third said that their organisation is above average, at 34%, while 18% said their organisation is excellent.

“Organisations that aim to attract and retain the diversity that will make them more competitive should increasingly focus on their leadership development process," according to Jane Stevenson, Global Leader for CEO Succession at Korn Ferry. “Today’s global marketplace requires a varied mix of skills, experiences, and backgrounds. Ensuring a highly visible process that is viewed as fair and accessible to all top talent is one of the best retention tools, and will build loyalty and sustained productivity.”

Can you identify people who are being developed as potential CEOs in your organisation

Knowledge of those employees who are being groomed for leadership in organisation was relatively broadly spread meanwhile. 25% of respondents said that they did not know who among their organisation was likely to climb the corporate ladder, while around 20% said that they could guess along informal factors. 33% claimed that it was somewhat apparent while 22% say that it is ‘crystal clear’, suggesting only a slim majority believe their organisation has a clear, well-thought plan for ascending talent through the ranks, and rectifying gender representation in the process.

Representation low

Respondents also noted that the number of women in high-profile positions remained low – which may create a situation in which there are not enough women to act as role models or mentors able to support women in their ascent to the top. 26% of respondents said that there are hardly any leaders that are women, 47% say that there are a few leaders that are women, while around 28% maintain that women are well represented at the top.

When you think about the highest profile leaders, how many are women

In terms of further developing women leaders of organisations, 28% noted that boosting female leadership at the company was a priority, however 24% claimed the opposite was true. 33% meanwhile claimed that there are specific initiatives to promote diversity in leadership development, while 15% of respondents said that they have heard that that there was a vague direction to push for such change.

As you understand it, is developing more women leaders a priority for your organisation

Finally, researchers asked respondents to identify the key reason why they believe it is harder for a woman to make it to the top of business. The biggest share of respondents (43%) highlighted bias against women as CEOs, followed by a dearth of opportunity (33%) of CEOs. Other reasons cited by respondents include personal/family responsibilities interfere with work responsibilities (17%) and a the belief that it is less of a priority for women (7%).

If you believe it's harder for women to become CEOs, what would your top reason be

While the research shows that a thin majority of firms have plans to increase the representation of women in management then, ideological prejudice is a key obstacle preventing such progress. While increasing board room diversity is time and again proven to be good business practice therefore, the figures reveal more must be done to combat the illogical aspects of recruitment which continue to see some women devalued due to their gender.

Summarising Korn Ferry’s findings, Jane Stevenson commented, "Companies with more diverse leadership that includes women are more successful across several key measures. Employees inside organisations understand this intuitively, based on their personal experience, but now research is broadly bearing this out."