The proportion of women holding senior management roles in Europe is steadily increasing according to the latest research from Grant Thornton. However, the reverse is true in emerging markets, where businesses have historically employed more females in senior roles.
This leaves the global average at 21%, barely higher than the 2004 level.
The figures from Grant Thornton’s International Business Report (IBR) reveal that just over one in five (22%) senior management positions in businesses surveyed in Latin America are held by women, down from 28% in 2009. Similar falls have been recorded in the Asia Pacific economies (25% in 2009 down to 19% in 2012), South East Asia (36% in 2009 down to 32% in 2012) and the BRIC economies (30% in 2009 down to 26% in 2012).
Despite rising unemployment, the proportion of women in senior management in Europe has continued to rise steadily from 17% in 2004 to 20% in 2009 to 24% in 2012, catching up with peers in emerging markets.
April Mackenzie, global head - governance and public policy at Grant Thornton International, said: “Across Europe, getting more women into senior management positions has been high on the political agenda for quite some time. Governments have been vocal about addressing the imbalance and as a result businesses have been under real scrutiny. This encouraging rise in senior women shows the effect this attention is starting to have.
“The steady drop-off we are seeing in the emerging markets is a real concern though. The worry is that we may be reaching the point where women are underrepresented in senior management the world over.”
There are a myriad of cultural, economic and social barriers which prevent women from reaching the top jobs, but rapid urbanisation, which has accompanied rapid economic growth in emerging markets, could help explain why the proportion of women in senior management is falling away.
Since 1978, China has experienced the largest internal migration in human history, with nearly 160m people moving from the countryside into cities. The proportion of people living in urban areas passed 50% in 2011, and is projected to hit 55% by 2020. Similarly in Mexico, the proportion of the population living in urban areas is projected to rise from 74% in 2000 to 80% by 2020. This is putting a huge strain on traditional family models.
April Mackenzie explained: “The movement into cities has begun to break down traditional models of extended families. The in-built childcare infrastructure which allowed children to be raised by grandparents, enabled women to work full-time. This is being replaced by ‘Western-style’ nuclear families which rely on one parent looking after the children or the prospect of expensive childcare.
“Urbanisation presents more opportunities for more people, including women, in many different ways. But the challenges it places on the family model appear to be having a disproportionately large effect on the ability of women to break the glass ceiling and occupy senior management roles.
“Governments and business leaders in emerging markets need to start working now to address this decline. The last thing we want to see is a race to mediocrity where the proportion of women in senior roles in these countries bottoms out and stagnates for a number of years. Or indeed that these high growth economies lose talent because women in the burgeoning rising middle classes opt out of the workforce altogether.
“There needs to be a public discussion now about the policies and practices that will enable and encourage women to continue to progress in the workplace.”
The IBR suggests that offering flexible working could help reverse this trend in emerging markets. Nearly two thirds of businesses in the EU (65%), where the proportion of women in senior management roles is increasing, currently offer flexible working. This is well ahead of Latin America (49%), the BRIC economies (36%) and Asia Pacific (32%).
April Mackenzie said: “Businesses in the emerging economies are lagging behind on the flexible working front. Greater adoption of this might allow a greater proportion of women to make senior positions in the future, reversing the current decline.”
Biggest winners and losers
Of the 40 economies surveyed, businesses in Russia employ the most women in senior management (46%), ahead of Botswana, Thailand and the Philippines (all 39%), whilst Italy ranks highest in Europe (36%).
Bottom of the table is Japan, where only 5% of senior management positions are filled by women, below Germany (13%), India (14%) and Denmark (15%).
The biggest risers over the past 12 months include Turkey (25% to 31%), and the United Arab Emirates (8% to 15%), results that suggest that the wave of economic liberalisation in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring could have boosted the chances of women in the region reaching the top.