Companies resist quotas despite slow gender diversity progress

16 August 2019 4 min. read

Despite progress on gender balance in senior levels of global businesses proceeding at a snail’s pace, corporate entities remain hostile to regulation or diversity quotas. At present just 15% of CEO roles are held by women, according to the latest research on the matter.

Removing barriers in the workplace to increase diversity continues to be a focus for large businesses globally. Progress so far has been slow, with entrenched biases proving hard to overcome, and gender diversity in management has barely improved by 1% in the last 10 years. The glass ceiling is proving hard to crack.

Despite this relative lack of movement, however, a new poll from Grant Thornton has found that the business community remains characteristically hostile to the idea of quotas and targets being imposed for the sake of diversity. With the number of women in senior management positions at 29% in 2019, a survey of approximately 4,000 senior executives in listed and privately held companies all over the world found that only 19% would support quotas.

Actions to promote gender diversity being taken globally

This is not to say that firms are ignoring the matter. As it stands more than 75% of firms are taking some form of action to promote gender diversity in their business, but the majority favour less ‘intrusive’ measures.  When it comes to promoting actions that promote gender diversity globally, “ensuring equal access to developmental work opportunities” took the number one spot, cited by 34% of respondents. The “creation of an inclusive culture” took second spot, at 31% of respondents – reflecting the need for a strategy and top level buy-in. Flexible working arrangements (29%), the provision of mentoring and coaching (24%) and reviewing of recruitment approaches (24%) rounded off the top five.

Echoing the feelings of many businesses on the matter, Francesca Lagerberg, Grant Thornton International’s global leader for network capabilities, said, “Targeted initiatives kick-start activity, but where you see a difference is when they are rigorously followed through, and where there’s real commitment from the senior leadership… It filters through an organisation so everybody knows: this is how we do things.”

Proportion of women in senior management

The problem is that while companies are not being inactive though, their favoured techniques do not seem to be yielding quick improvements. With progress on gender parity remaining slow, many firms could be set to come under pressure to do more, facing public scrutiny and, ultimately, statutory measures, should they fail to do so.

Senior management has seen the proportion of women increase moderately in the last year by 5% to 29%, though this represents a partial rebound, as figures fell from 25% the year before. The number of businesses employing at least one woman in a senior management position has meanwhile increased from around 65% in 2017 to almost 90%. Despite these figures making for positive reading, though, critics will undoubtedly feel that the bar has been set exceptionally low, with the tokenism of having a single woman in a senior position arguably doing little to shift corporate culture quickly.

Barriers facing senior leaders

At the end of the day, Grant Thornton conceded in its report on the survey that progress has indeed been relatively slow – with the often cited ‘tipping point’ of more than 30% women in senior management still to be reached. While the proportion of the senior management team has increased, meanwhile, strategic roles, such as COO and CIO are much less well represented, with 18% and 16% respectively. The CEO role was held by 15% of respondents. Interestingly, making Partner is much less likely than becoming a CEO, with 7% of the surveyed group, female.

The report also explored possible barriers faced by both men and women on their path towards becoming senior managers. Interestingly both men and women noted similar levels of barriers, although women were slightly more likely to say that they lacked access to developmental work opportunities, cited by 27% of women and 23% of men, while for “access to networking opportunities” a difference of 3% was noted, at 26% for women vs. 23% for men. Women also faced more pressure due to caring responsibilities outside work.