Why the corporate elevator is not working for women

In the latest edition of the Mazars C-suite barometer we found that 44% of C-suites have over 30% women among their top strategic decision-makers, a figure virtually unchanged since we started the survey two years ago.

There are two ways of looking at this. On the negative side, women account for less than 30% of the leadership in a majority of companies (56%). On the flipside, it means that in almost half of the companies, over 30% of decision-making positions are held by women. But when you consider that women make up over 50% of the world’s active population, and nearly two thirds of the graduates, we really should expect to see an even greater percentage of women represented in companies’ top management.

In February 2022, women represented only 22% of the executive committees of STOXX Europe 600 companies, and just 7.5% of these companies had women CEOs. In 2021, Fortune announced a record number of 23 women CEOs heading the top 500 globally ranked companies. These numbers remain low despite some progress since 2020.

The facts speak loud and clear: women are vastly underrepresented at the top of companies, and the status quo is not acceptable. There are women in the talent pool, but not in key decision-making positions. When the problem is not at the source, you have to look at the process: the corporate elevator is broken – or rather, it has never worked for women.

This has been the case historically and whilst there has been progress, it is not enough. The only significant progress in the past decade has been in countries and regions where quotas on non-executive boards have been introduced. Europe is a great example of success in this area, and governments must continue to put in place mechanisms to help women participate at their full potential. The barriers are well known: women worldwide are much more likely than men to do unpaid work caring for children and family, which creates a penalty for them to succeed in the traditional corporate pathway; and cultural and societal biases persist which prevent women’s advancement to key decision-making positions.  

Our Myths and barriers preventing the progression of women report, which we wrote last year in partnership with the Observatory for Gender Balance, sheds light on some of the issues holding back progress, and explores stereotypes and biases linked to the perceived role of women in society.  

Beyond what government can do to help change the situation, corporations have a role to play, too. To significantly move the needle, leaders have to be more than just willing to tackle gender diversity. They have to ensure that it is a top strategic priority on the executive committee agenda and that there is a clear roadmap for change. They have to fix the corporate elevator in order to improve business performance and organisational health. It is therefore disappointing to see that only a third of businesses in our survey this year identified gender diversity as a top-three strategic priority. If it is not set as a priority, then change will not happen.

To make change happen, businesses have to set clear targets, understand where the issues are and put in place action plans to address the gaps. To do that effectively, they must educate their people, review HR processes and policies, and incentivise management teams on the basis of concrete achievements. On that note, it was encouraging to see 78% of the C-suite incentivised in this way in our survey.  

It is also encouraging to see that ensuring gender diversity and tackling sexism are the top priority of the D&I programmes leaders have in place – and that this has seen a significant jump compared to last year (from 41% to 53%). This is a clear indication that gender diversity is no longer just seen as a soft topic – it’s a performance topic, too.

In a world where talent is becoming a scarce resource, not being able to capture over half of the talent pool puts a company at a disadvantage. The companies that will win the talent war are the ones that offer equal opportunities to all the talent, including those who may not fit into traditional categories and leadership models.