Grant Thornton’s Women in Business report 2021: highlighting a window of opportunity

For 17 years, Grant Thornton has been tracking the global progress of women in senior management. In the last 12 months, unprecedented events have had an unforeseen and unparalleled impact on that progress. The coronavirus pandemic has driven a fundamental shift in global working practices. It has forced millions into a remote working model. It has exposed weaknesses in supply chains; caused businesses to assess the factors essential to survival; and underlined the mid-market as the beating heart of many sectors, central to keeping economies functioning.

At the same time, expansive popular movements including Black Lives Matter, FareShare and Extinction Rebellion have shone a harsh light on inequalities and exclusion in society and the workplace, and the need for changes to business practices in order to create sustainable growth. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are in the spotlight. And political upheaval has driven expectation for greater diversity and representation at the highest levels. Businesses and their leaders are being held publicly accountable, and the risks for those not truly committed to inclusion are high.

Widening the door to diversity

These seismic shifts have, inevitably, had repercussions for women in business, their prospects and the challenges theynface in the coming months and years. The business landscape appears to be undergoing permanent changes, not least due to the more flexible, hybrid working environments being adopted by many organisations. “Businesses need to consciously look at the positive shifts that have occurred around diversity, inclusion, and women in leadership, and lock those in,” says Kim Schmidt, global leader – leadership, people and culture at Grant Thornton International. “They have to ensure that, as they shape the future work environment, they take the learnings from the pandemic into account. The more flexibility they provide in how and when people do their jobs, the more engagement they’ll get, and the more attractive they’ll be as employers.”

Research studies from 2020 are definitive that women’s employment and career development have both been impacted significantly by the pandemic. But they diverge over whether it has set the gender parity movement back by several years, or if it could prove to be a springboard into senior positions for more women.

“We won’t really know what changes COVID’s made for a couple of years. It could both help and hinder,” points out Francesca Lagerberg, global leader – network capabilities at Grant Thornton International. “Virtual working may help some women get into certain roles, and make those roles more manageable. But with COVID, where some women’s lives are being taken up with just keeping the family running, it could be pushing them back."

A more digital working landscape has removed some of the traditional obstacles to women’s careers. Flexible working – including the ability to set their own hours, removal of the ressure to commute, and the technology to connect and participate fully from a remote location – has long been on the list of actions needed to promote female career progression. While changes in working practices have varied globally, and by sector, the mass movement to home working engendered by COVID-19 has shown these working practices to be both practical and, in some cases, preferable.

Leadership in the new normal

Leadership styles have also come under scrutiny due to the demands of the pandemic. Engagement with staff, a greater understanding of people’s personal needs and circumstances, and support for mental and emotional health have been more vital than ever. Empathy has been a core leadership trait during COVID-19. As these ‘softer’ management styles have proved their worth, a greater appreciation of, and a greater need for, diverse leadership has emerged.

“It has shone a light on the skill set traditionally perceived as more ‘female’ than ‘male’,” says Francesca Lagerberg. “The need to have more empathy in the current environment has been huge. Empathy is vital in the approach to people working within the organisation – if you’ve got people on furlough, if you’ve got people struggling with their circumstances – and the mental health issues that COVID has driven.”

The chance to accelerate change

Progress towards greater diversity and inclusion, and particularly gender parity in senior management, has in the past decade moved slower than it should. But as a result of the upheavals of the past year, it is both more possible and more important than ever before. Our 2021 research has shown an increase in the proportion of senior female managers globally. At 31%, up from 29% in 2020, it has finally passed the 30% tipping point1 needed to catalyse real change. Nine out of 10 businesses worldwide now have at least one woman in their leadership teams. There are more female managing directors and chief executive officers (CEOs) than ever before, with 26% of these roles held by women. How leaders respond to the changed business landscape will dictate whether we now see a significant upswing in these numbers.

“There will be an expectation that leaders post-COVID change the way they lead if they want to bring in talent and keep people engaged. That creates an avenue for women into senior roles,” says Kim Schmidt. “COVID-19 didn’t create this shift – it accelerated existing trends and attitudes towards flexible working, the importance of diversity to innovation and business success, and the need for more empathetic, more transparent leadership.”

At Grant Thornton, we believe there is now a window of opportunity during which mid-market leaders can accelerate the progress of their businesses into a more inclusive future – or choose to revert to previous models. The benefits of diversity at a senior level include improved financial performance, leveraging talent, reflecting the marketplace and customer perspectives, and increased innovation. All of which will help businesses successfully navigate these uncertain times.

This report outlines the position of women in senior management around the world as we witness the emergence of a more diverse and inclusive leadership model, and highlights the actions leaders need to take in order to create a step change in the proportion of high-level roles held by women.

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