‘Alarming turning point’ | Proportion of women in the C-suite drops for the first time since 2005

Proportion of women in the C-suite drops for the first time since 2005

The share of women in C-suite positions at publicly traded U.S. companies has dropped for the first time in nearly twenty years, according to a report from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

Women held only 12.2% of around 15,000 C-Suite positions at such firms in 2022. The slow but steady progress of the past few years faltered in 2023, with the percentage falling to 11.8%.

Across all senior leadership positions, representation for women did increase, but at the lowest rate in over a decade – just 0.5%, compared to an average of 1.2% across the 18 year period of measurement.

As a result, estimates for gender parity in senior leadership in publicly traded U.S. firms have been pushed back anywhere from one to seven years compared to 2022 forecasts, to between 2033 and 2042 depending on the ‘aggression’ of the model.

For gender parity in the C-suite, estimates are now as far out as 2065 to 2072.

The report describes this as an “alarming turning point,” with previous exponential growth “showing signs of losing momentum.”

An “alarming turning point” for gender parity

This slowed progress may indicate difficulties for DE&I and HR teams in their efforts to break the glass ceiling for women in the C-suite.

Representation for women in all leadership roles has grown from less than 8% in 2005 to 22.3% in 2023, but progress at the C-suite level has been slower, only increasing from 6.5% to 11.8% in the same timeframe.

The 0.4% decline in representation is the first year the representation has fallen during the study period and is particularly surprising given it follows the largest period of growth for women holding seats in the C-suite representation over the study – 0.85% growth in 2022.

There have been fluctuations in women representation in all leadership roles in recent years, with growth rates for gender parity slowing during 2020, before picking up in 2021 post-pandemic. The rates slowed again in 2022 and even further in 2023.

The report draws on gender parity data in regulatory documents from around 90% of companies on the S&P Global Total Market Index and confirms the assessment from the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report 2023, which found that “gender parity globally has recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels, but the pace of change has stagnated.”

The WEF says that the slowed progress in women's representation at the leadership level comes as they “continue to bear the brunt of the current cost of living crisis and labour market disruptions.”

Gender parity: An ‘inflection point’ for HR in corporate America

The S&P Global Market Intelligence concludes that the decline in the growth rate of women’s representation across all senior roles and the unprecedented loss of C-suite seats places corporate America at a crossroads.

“In recent years, the exponential growth in women’s representation in senior corporate positions has been a bright spot,” it says. “Unfortunately, 2023 numbers indicate an inflection point.”

The report also finds that gender diversity initiatives may be losing traction, placing HR at this inflection point.

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S&P Global Market Intelligence uses natural language processing (NLP) software to monitor the mentions of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ on earnings calls at publicly traded U.S. companies.

“The declining momentum in diversity initiatives was also manifest on earnings calls,” the report notes. Mentions surged during the COVID pandemic in 2020, but have declined substantially every quarter since the 2020 peak. “Mentions for the 2023 fiscal year, in aggregate, were the lowest since 2012.”

The report finishes with a call to arms for those in HR and others concerned with establishing gender parity across company leadership: “Such metrics should be monitored and considered, to ensure progress toward established goals.”

Some companies are achieving progress and have defied the trend, increasing gender parity at the leadership level. Cybersecurity company SentinelOne, for example, increased women's representation in its leadership by 16% during 2023.

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