Francesca Lagerberg Francesca Lagerberg

The last year has seen global business take one step forward but one step back when it comes to gender diversity in leadership. The percentage of businesses around the world with at least one woman in senior management has increased significantly, rising from 66% to 75% in the last year. But at the same time the proportion of senior roles held by women has marginally declined.

This suggests that businesses may be focused on ticking the ‘diversity’ box to avoid an all-male leadership team, rather than creating an inclusive culture that leads to a genuinely diverse senior management team. While it’s hugely positive that women are in senior roles at more businesses, it’s disappointing that they are being spread so thinly. This means many businesses will not gain from the benefits of real diversity.

Given this trend, we set out to understand the role of policy in bringing about positive change and in countering cultural norms and unconscious bias that can hinder progress. Somewhere, good intent is not turning in to real action.

We find that business policy is abundant; equal pay, paid parental leave, flexible hours and other policies are common around the world. But those countries in which businesses have the most policies in place are not necessarily those that demonstrate the most gender diversity. Policy alone, it seems, does not create real progress.

Businesses report levels of complexity in translating good intentions into practice can make it difficult to introduce policies to improve gender diversity. They say that stereotypes about gender roles are still a barrier to progress. Many business leaders want their government to do more to address the issue of gender inequality in business leadership at a legislative level. Although the majority believe businesses and governments need to work collaboratively to solve the problem.

It’s clear that policy – whether led by business or driven by government – is not producing large scale change. That’s not to say that policy isn’t important or doesn’t work within individual organisations, but the results are not widespread. In addition, there is no clear correlation between which specific policies are adopted and the gender diversity of businesses’ senior management teams.

This poses an important question: if policy is not driving more women to the top, despite widespread use, then what will?

Interviews we conducted with business leaders around the world suggest that the businesses creating real change are those whose policies and practices are rooted in a genuine conviction of the benefit of diversity. Their leaders recognise the advantages of gender diversity and create inclusive cultures in which a wide range of voices are listened to. This is about behavioural change rather than a checkbox exercise.

There is compelling evidence of the link between gender  diversity in leadership and commercial success. The current volatility in the global economy and ongoing technological innovation and disruption makes the issue more important than ever. Businesses with all-male leadership teams should be feeling the heat of a burning platform. They need to act fast if they are to stay competitive.

This doesn’t mean simply introducing more policies. The fundamental change required is for business leaders to champion the cause of gender diversity. Once it is seen as a core company value, and possibly linked to compensation, then specific initiatives such as unconscious bias training and sponsorship can help. Tone at the top does matter to drive change and there is some evidence of growing fatigue about initiatives that do not lead to different behaviours.

There is no single initiative that will solve the problem of gender diversity. Increasing the number of women in business leadership, like any worthwhile change, will take time and may be hard. Businesses, including Grant Thornton, must navigate their way and a key part of that will be showing to those potential future leaders that this journey is worthwhile. But by highlighting in this report the current state of play and providing recommendations for business leaders looking to realise the commercial benefit of gender diversity, we hope to help drive change.