IBM Research: Women, Leadership, and Missed Opportunities

Media Release:

Advancing gender equity is a clear win. But doubling down on pre-Covid approaches won’t get organizations where they need to be.

In 2019, IBM launched its first women in leadership study. Our goal was to see if the attention and resources devoted to aiding women’s professional advancement had made a demonstrable difference in closing the gender gap. Two years and a global pandemic later, we wondered: Have things changed?

Our findings suggest they have, but not for the better. Despite increased awareness of gender imbalances, the number of women serving in senior leadership positions has barely budged over the past 2 years. Only 1 in 4 organizations are making the advancement of women a top 10 priority. And, perhaps most concerning, there are now fewer women in the pipeline to fill executive roles than there were in 2019.

While many factors may be inhibiting progress, companies can make bolder breakthroughs if they commit to taking action now. Organizations need to treat gender equity and diversity as though their survival depends on it. Not only is leveling the playing field the right thing to do, it is undeniably good for business.

Gender-inclusive organizations that prioritize the advancement of women reap a variety of benefits.

  • They report a rate of revenue growth as much as 61 percent higher than other organizations.
  • 60 percent report they are more innovative than their competitors.
  • 70 percent say they lead their field in customer satisfacion.
If awareness is the first step to action, then it’s hard to imagine circumstances more rattling than the events of 2020. In the span of a year, the pandemic upended generations of working women, with more than 5 million just in the US losing or leaving their jobs. In addition, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests shone a light on persistent racial disparities, revealing barriers that especially disadvantage Black women and other women of color.
The disruptions brought renewed attention to the challenges women face as they endeavor to advance their careers, from the “second shift” that women work after their day jobs to the steep on-ramp many face when returning from a career break, and much more. These challenges are not new. Some organizations did step up interventions over the past year, expanding access to childcare and introducing flexible work programs to accommodate women, who globally continue to bear majority responsibility for childcare and eldercare in their families. But the IBM survey found most gender-equity efforts move too slowly and, in some cases, are slipping backward.
Credit: Marten Bjork on and Unsplash

Stacked biases penalize women of color

  • 38%        How much less Black women are paid than white men, on average
  • 23           How many months it takes Hispanic women to earn what white men earn in a year
  • 1             How many Black women are Fortune 500 CEOs
The sobering reality is that executive boardrooms and C-suites globally look essentially the same as they did two years ago. Our data indicates they comprise the same small percentage of women (8% for executive boards and 10% for C-suites) despite a heavy push for diversity, along with national mandates in a growing list of countries that includes Norway, Spain, France, Iceland, and Germany.
Alarmingly, these low percentages risk shrinking further. Our data indicates the pipeline of women needed to fill open executive positions has narrowed. Fewer women hold senior vice president, vice president, director, and manager roles in 2021 than in 2019. This contraction aligns with other dire statistics showing that women in the early and middle stages of their careers are most vulnerable to pandemic-related job displacements, with those aged 20 to 34 among the hardest hit. Without effective, immediate interventions, the loss of future leadership talent poses a long-term risk for organizations and for the economy as a whole.

2019 vs. 2021: The pipeline of women for leadership roles has gotten smaller


women are in senior vice president, vice president, director, and manager roles

No change

in the number of women on boards and the C-suite

Yet, the events of 2020 showed that organizations can move boldly when they want to. When the global economy went into a tailspin following coronavirus lockdowns, diversity and inclusion initiatives were among the first casualties. But the Black Lives Matter protests propelled diversity and equity to center stage, spurring new, bold commitments and optimism. Adidas, for example, plans to fill at least 30% of open positions with Black or Hispanic candidates. PepsiCo has announced it will add more than 250 Black employees to managerial positions, including a minimum of 100 Black employees to executive positions. And Estée Lauder commits to increasing the percentage of Black employees at all levels of its company, including the management layers, over the next 5 years, mirroring the percentage of Black people in the US.

These examples show that organizations can make big commitments in short order. To boost gender equity, and their own performance, businesses need to demonstrate the same energy and dedication. But success will require a different playbook.(/)


Featured image of woman via IBM.

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