Despite overwhelming evidence that proves advancing women in leadership roles only elevates businesses, the majority of global organizations still fail to make gender equality a priority.

According to a recent report by IBM, “Women, leadership, and the priority paradox”, 79% of organizations globally say advancing women into leadership roles is not a formal business priority.

Although a vast majority of companies put forth statements encouraging gender equality in their workplace, very few are formally prioritizing the advancement of women as part of their strategic business plan.

The research found by IBM explores the reasoning behind companies’ mindset to limit the advancement of female leadership and actions companies should strive to achieve. 

Women in leadership, and the priority paradox

In cooperation with Oxford Economics, IBM’s research team surveyed 2,300 executives and professionals—an equal number of women and men—from organizations worldwide across multiple industries to better understand why the gender gap in leadership persists and what can be done to ignite real change

The ten industries represented included banking, consumer products, education, government, healthcare, insurance, manufacturing, retail, technology, and telecommunications.

The research by IBM discovered that companies that prioritize furthering gender equality in their leadership positions experience greater success than those who don’t. Yet the mentality of advancing women in leadership roles remains scarce. 

Obstacles to change

Many organizations are not entirely sold on the benefits of gender equality in leadership, even though ample evidence correlates gender equity with improved financial success and competitive advantage.

Too many organizations remain unconvinced by the compelling data that suggests more women in leadership roles could give their companies a boost. When asked if gender-inclusive organizations were more successful financially, 42 percent of respondents were unable to answer, unconvinced of overwhelming data the proves these organizations are more successful.

Traditional stereotypes that assume women can not be successful leaders because their family will take priority over career often clouds data that proves otherwise. 

The role men play

The IBM survey found that only 18 percent of their respondent’s senior leaders are women, meaning 82 percent are men. The report concludes that when talking about what organizations are willing to do to advance women, we are talking about what men are willing to do.

Men may acknowledge the existence of gender inequities, but many don’t understand how their behaviour and lack of action contribute to maintaining the status quo in companies. 

The majority of male respondents believed that being male is not a factor in their success, with 65% believing that if they were the opposite gender, they would be just as likely to have been promoting to a top leadership role.

The female executives surveyed were unable to relate to their male colleagues, with 60 percent claiming their career progression would have been better had they been male.

For gender equality to truly occur, men must first acknowledge disparities in their own workplace. By prioritizing advancing women in leadership roles, IBM believes men play an essential role in creating an equal workplace. 

What are First Movers

The IBM data analysis reveals a small subgroup of organizations called “First Movers.” They are working hard to shift their corporate cultures and are already reaping the benefits of gender equality in leadership positions.

Despite being just 12 percent of the total survey samples, First Movers have committed the advancement of women as a formal business priority. They are motivated by financial improvement and acknowledge their responsibility to take action.

First Movers organizations believe the evidence that gender-inclusive organizations are more successful financially, whereas only 38 percent of other organizations agree. A majority report that they outperform their competition in each of these four categories: profitability, revenue growth, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

Several First Movers are outperforming on the financial front, with 25 percent of First Movers reporting they have “significantly outperformed” in profitability and

23 percent in revenue growth for three years. They have also been more successful than their competition in gender equality, employee satisfaction, and innovation.

Although there are still limited First Mover organizations globally, 83% of First Movers say implementing initiatives to improve gender diversity is easier than other business initiatives on their plates.

The four habits of First Movers

More First Movers take these actions to help advance women, so all employees have an equal chance to further their careers:

Graphs credited to IBM

  1. Provides career development planning specific to women’s needs
  2. Uses the same metrics for men’s and women’s job performance evaluations and applies them equitably
  3. Provides men and women with equal career opportunities
  4. Works hard to create a culture that embraces women’s leadership styles

IBM’s suggestions

According to IBM’s research, companies will likely struggle to remain competitive if they fail to systematically develop and promote women who are capable of leadership candidates.

The report suggests companies do not need to be startups, to re-start their thinking on gender equality. By embracing initiatives and policies that recognize gender disparities in leadership positions, companies can make great leaps.

But it is not only about recognition or a statement of encouragement. The next step needs to be made, which is formal action and prioritizing a plan that advances women in leadership positions beyond just words.

The suggestions made by the recent report by IBM mirror similar conclusions by the Women Talk Tech 2020 Action Plan Report.