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Why women’s journey to the top takes longer, according to YPO

Companies need to step up.

Allie Nawrat

Credit: Luxury133 via Twenty20.

The study surveyed more than 2,000 YPO member CEOs from 106 countries. Unleash Your Diversity

  • While it seems like gender diversity is improving, YPO’s research found women still face significant challenges in the workplace and particularly as CEOs.
  • The gap between male and female employees is only widening as a result of the pandemic.
  • So what can companies do to create inclusive companies that are empowering safe spaces for everyone?

Asurvey by CEO membership organization Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), the Financial Times, and the UN HeForShe campaign found that 57% of global CEOs said their organization was more gender diverse than five years ago — but it’s clear that significant challenges remain when it comes to building gender-equal organizations.

First of all the path to the top job takes longer for women. The study surveyed more than 2,000 YPO member CEOs from 106 countries (23% of them were women) and it found that of those who achieved CEO level by the age of 45 – the requirement for YPO membership – the female leadership journey took two years longer.

Credit: YPO, Financial Times, and UN’s HeForShe campaign.

The study also found that female CEOs were more commonly faced with unconscious bias and claims that they were not up to the job. 30% of female CEOs said they had to balance respect and likability and 20% had to overcome preconceptions about their capabilities. In contrast, only 9% of male CEOs surveyed had to overcome preconceptions in taking on the top role.

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While only 2% of male CEOs said that gendered expectations were an obstacle in their work, gendered biases were a barrier for 47% of female CEOs. Further to this, 40% of female CEOs were grappling with the challenges of balancing priorities and having a work-life balance.

In addition, 73% of female CEOs said they had sacrificed career advancement because of the needs of their family – this compares to only 42% of male CEOs. Linked to this, while 60% of female CEOs had taken maternity leave in their careers, only 13% of male CEOs had gone on paternity leave.

How to accelerate gender equality in the workplace  

First and foremost, it is clear that having women at the helm has a role in driving forward gender equality in companies.

Companies with female CEOs had more gender diversity on their boards, in senior management and in the wider staff base. Companies with female CEOs had 43% women in senior management positions, compared to 26% for male-run businesses.

This suggests that male CEOs need to step up and focus more on meaningful diversity and inclusion initiatives. The most important thing is that CEOs – no matter their gender – lead by example and focus on ensuring that workplaces are inclusive.

To create a gender inclusive company culture, those surveyed by YPO suggested there is a need to conduct bias training in all hiring, mentoring and promotion processes.

CEOs must also focus on hiring more female talent – particularly since more women lost their jobs in the pandemic – and on ensuring women have appropriate mentorship to allow them to enter leadership roles.

Another actionable insight is to provide flexible working options; 24% of respondents said this would have a significant impact on advancing gender equality in the workplace.

YPO’s report noted: “Chief executives need to recognize the unique challenges faced by their female employees.

“Women often have to juggle childcare and their careers. If businesses provide flexible work options, they can help attract and retain female workers and harness their potential.”

The survey also found that it was crucial that employers take workplace sexual harassment seriously, as well as voluntarily address the gender pay gap in the company.

Finally, it is essential that CEOs have a clearly defined gender diversity policy that is communicated to the entire organization. “Beyond diversity training, some companies have launched other programs to achieve that goal, including hosting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roundtables that are mandatory for all employees to attend,” wrote YPO.

“They have also formed employee resource groups (ERGs) to support various groups within their organization. These groups provide an open forum for employees who share a common identity to meet and support one another. They aim to contribute to personal and professional development in the work environment.”  

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