Gender Diversity and Leadership: What is the current situation for female leaders, and is it improving?

Female leader

In her seminal book, 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman', Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that ‘the few employments open to women, so far from being liberal, are menial'. Fast forward over two hundred years, to the 2014 UN Conference on gender equality, and this topic is still in hot debate. Emma Watson, UN Goodwill Ambassador for women and HeforShe campaigner, stated that 'no country in the world can yet say that they have achieved gender equality'.

The current situation of gender diversity in leadership positions can be roughly summed up with the following. In 2013, the EU suggested that women were, on average, more educated than men, with 34% of working women having some form of tertiary level education compared to 28% of men. However, they remained under represented in leadership and decision making roles at work. The EU's September 2015 report on the gender balance on corporate boards states that 60% of new university graduates are female, but just 21.2% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in the EU are women. There are only eight EU countries, of which the UK is one, where women make up at least one quarter of board members. Consequently, access to higher levels of education appears to be much more equal, but this educational equality does not necessarily translate into equality in the workplace.

These statistics indicate that the current climate for female leadership still needs improvement. However, the situation for ambitious women is not all doom and gloom. There has actually been a significant increase in the number of women in leadership roles in large companies over the last five years. In 2010 only 11.9% of board members were women, making the 2015 percentage of 21.2% look positively optimistic. The September 2015 report indicates that women may finally be breaking through the glass ceiling, after nearly sixty years of EU gender equality policy, kick-started by the Treaty of Rome in 1957.     

Gender diversity in leadership positions is on the increase, in the EU at least. This is an extremely positive trend, not only for women, but for the economy as a whole. If highly educated women, or any women at all for that matter, are not given the opportunity to excel, then the economy loses out. Making poor use of women's skills, qualifications, and capacity for leadership leads to a massive waste of talent and potentially huge opportunity costs for businesses. Several EU reports have indicated that gender diversity in company leadership improves company performance. Reasons given for this include a more gender diverse company being more able to mirror the market; enhanced decision making as women often bring alternative viewpoints to the table; improved corporate governance and ethics; and better use of the talent pool. Moreover, studies have found that companies with a high proportion of women in top leadership roles actually deliver better organisational and financial performance than companies where women are underrepresented. Consequently, gender diversity in leadership is a good thing for everyone.

Resource Solutions is working with a major retail, corporate and commercial bank to ensure that at least 40% of their top senior leadership roles are filled by women by 2020. By employing a number of activities co-hosted by Resource Solutions including roundtable discussions, training events, best practice sharing, and identifying and engaging agencies focusing on specific segment groups, this bank is one step closer to guaranteeing their hiring managers get access to the most diverse talent in the market.

The leaps and bounds that have already been made should be celebrated - we have come a long way since Wollstonecraft's tentative first steps into feminist theory. However, we must remain highly aware that there is still a long way to go, and that gender diversity in leadership positions still needs work.

Download our Future Talent Strategies: Gender Diversity and Leadership whitepaper.