Despite heightened awareness of the challenges women are facing in the workplace driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, gender equity is still not a top priority for 70% of global businesses, according to an IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) study.
The global study “Women, leadership, and missed opportunities,” shows that gender equality may be at a crossroads, with the leadership pipeline for women shrinking. Fewer women surveyed hold senior vice president, vice president, director and manager roles in 2021 than they did 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 20-34 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.
Gender-equity efforts “move too slowly”
Even though some organizations did step up interventions over the past year, expanding access to childcare and introducing flexible work programs to accommodate women, the IBM survey found most gender-equity efforts move too slowly and, in some cases, are slipping backward.
The sobering reality is that executive boardrooms and C-suites around the world look essentially the same as they did 2 years ago. 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.
“The data show that many women leaders are experiencing challenges at this moment. If these issues are not addressed more deeply than in prior years, there is a risk of progress backsliding further,” said Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice president, global markets, IBM and senior executive sponsor of the IBM Women’s Community. “We should seize creative solutions now and redouble our efforts to make meaningful, lasting change that can help all women reach their full potential.”
In addition, the study indicates employees surveyed feel fatigue and waning optimism over ineffective programmatic efforts to address gender equity. Only 62% of women surveyed (down 9 percentage points from 2019) and 60% of men surveyed (down 7 percentage points from 2019) expect their organization will significantly improve gender parity over the next five years.
On average, Black women are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women.
Stacked biases penalize women of color
Despite renewed corporate attention to diversity and inclusion, data reveals that Black women and other women of color face layered barriers – they are penalized because of their race and penalized again because of their gender.
The study found that race and ethnicity account for much more discrimination experienced by women than gender alone. 34% of all women say they have personally experienced race-based bias, while 28% say they have experienced gender-based bias.
For women of color, it’s even worse: 86% of Hispanic women have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity and 70% because of their gender.
Pay disparities are similarly entrenched. On average, Black women are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. Hispanic women are especially disadvantaged – they earn less than all other racial and ethnic groups and have to work 23 months to earn what white men earn in 12.
Women of color are also significantly underrepresented in professional leadership roles. Only 5 Fortune 500 companies have Black CEOs; just 1 of them is a woman. And across the senior leadership ranks, women of color hold just 1 in 25 C-suite roles and white women 1 in 5.
Too much focus on programs, not enough on shifting mindsets
Compared to 2019, data shows that more organizations are instituting more initiatives to improve gender equity and inclusion. Gender-blind job screenings and parental leave for women are among the most commonly applied Interventions.
But looking at the 429 encore organizations (those that participated in both IBM’s 2019 and 2021 studies) provides a longitudinal view suggesting more programs haven’t necessarily translated to better outcomes. Organizations may be using lots of tools, but the tools they’re employing aren’t getting at the fine edges – those mindsets and behaviors that create a welcoming, inclusive corporate culture and deliver business advantage.
The survey also found notable perceptual differences between men and women even in regions where gender and diversity policies are well established, such as the socially progressive Nordics. There, more than twice as many women as men say their workplace environment is male-dominated (30% compared to 13%). The US is home to stark differences as well, with 25% of women – but only 16% of men – saying that the “old boys’ club” culture prevails.
The "First Mover" advantage
The study identified a group (11%) of survey respondents referred to as “First Movers” who designate the advancement of women as a formal business priority, view gender-inclusivity as a driver of financial performance and are highly motivated to take action.
First Movers self-reported stronger financial performance – as much as a 61% higher mean rate of revenue growth compared to the mean reported by other organizations in our study – as well as stronger innovation and stronger customer and employee satisfaction.