Issue 2, 2014. April-May



March 8 was International Women's Day - a good time to take stock of where women are in business. New research from Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) reveals that despite a groundswell of discussion and debate, the proportion of top jobs around the world held by women remains at just under a quarter. The survey finds growing support for regulation for quotas to get women onto boards, but also several measures that businesses can take to facilitate the career paths of women.

Ana Gabedava

Globally, the proportion of senior roles filled by women in 2014 is 24%. This is exactly the same proportion as in 2013, 2009 and 2007, and only 5% higher than the 19% recorded ten years ago in 2004. Regionally, there has been very little significant change over the past decade with Eastern Europe (37%), Southeast Asia (35%) and China (38%) leading the way. Japan (9%), India and the United Arab Emirates (both 14%) continue to prop up the table.

That greater diversity in decision making produces better outcomes is no longer up for debate. For businesses, better decisions mean stronger growth, so it is in their interests to facilitate the path of women from the classroom to the boardroom.

The concern is that recent improvements in the access of women to education, especially in emerging markets, has not translated into higher proportions of women reaching the top of the corporate ladder. And while women are more likely to achieve these senior roles in emerging markets, there has been a worrying lack of movement globally over the past decade. This is clear evidence that we need actions rather than words. We would like to see businesses and governments implementing measures that support the career paths of women.

The IBR also shows growth in support for the introduction of quotas to get more women on corporate boards. Globally, close to one in two business leaders (45%) would now like to see quotas for the numbers of women on the boards of large listed companies, up from just over one in three (37%) in 2013. Interestingly, support has grown sharply in the EU (from 33% to 41%) where the imposition of quotas are most likely, but also in the BRIC economies (41% to 72%), and support remains high in Latin America (68%) and Asia Pacific (57%). Across the G7, however, only 33% of business leaders are in support of quotas.

Quotas may be controversial, so businesses themselves can also implement measures which could make a real difference. Research shows that just a fifth of the average global graduate intake is female. You would expect a fair proportion of a business's future leaders to come from its pool of graduates, so getting more women starting at that level will increase the odds of women making it to the top. It's better for businesses too; a wider breadth of candidates means more chances of hiring star performers. And more could be done to support working mothers. Providing flexible working hours is helpful but it's not enough: businesses should consider providing tangible support for the burden of childcare if they want to retain their most talented women.

One may look into the issue of women in business also from another angle - leadership styles. There is a stark regional split in business leadership practices. While Asia Pacific and Latin American economies appear more open to the use of coaching, intuition and creativity, peers in Europe rely on more traditional practices. This split in leadership styles also closely mirrors a divergence in the proportion of women in senior positions.

Research identifies two very different types of business leader. In markets like Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam leaders termed "Modernists" are evident - they are open to coaching, value creativity and intuition, and are much more likely to be women - or surrounded by women in senior positions. By contrast, leaders in European economies like France, Germany, Spain and the UK are so-called "Traditionalists" - they are far less likely to use a coach, place less value on creativity and intuition, and are less likely to be women.

Business leaders were asked how important they believe certain attributes are to good leadership. Globally, integrity, a positive attitude and communication came out on top, but an interesting split emerges in leadership traits such as creativity and intuition which have increased in significance relatively recently.

The fact that business leaders in these economies are more likely to be women is not a coincidence. They appear to show greater openness to coaching, place greater emphasis on more modern management techniques and are also more willing to delegate. Grant Thornton's research definitely indicates a difference of approach that highlights the value to business of having gender diversity in senior roles.

Grant Thornton research revealed earlier this year that while leaders in these emerging economies display different behavior, they are also more likely to be female. 32% of South East Asian senior business leaders are women, 29% in the Asia Pacific region and 28% in the BRICs. In comparison, only 21% of senior positions in the G7 are occupied by women, and 22% in the euro zone. At the board level specifically, 26% of board members in BRIC economies are women, compared to just 16% in the G7 and 19% globally.

There is a wealth of research suggesting that decision making is affected by the gender balance on boards. As businesses with higher proportions of women in senior management tend to be found in emerging economies, the question is whether this offers them an advantage in the global race for growth.

Economies in Europe and North America are picking up and business leaders are looking forward to the effect this will have on the growth of their own operations. But longer-term, the danger is that the diversity and openness to modern leadership styles exhibited by Modernist peers could result in better decision-making and, ultimately, stronger growth in Modernist countries, while countries tending to be Traditionalist will lag behind.