Guess how many of the world’s biggest companies have 1/3 women in the C-Suite? No, lower

Men have the vast majority of seats at the business table.
Men have the vast majority of seats at the business table.
Image: Reuters/ Ruben Sprich
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Companies are keen to champion women’s empowerment. Board members attend diversity panels, female leaders are invited to give inspiring speeches, and nearly every CEO has read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Altogether, this suggests that the corporate world is finally ready to treat women the same as men. The data, though, tell a very different story.

Quartz analyzed 1,500 of the largest public companies from 27 countries worldwide—the 500 largest listed companies in Europe, and Asia, and the United States—and found out just how badly companies around the world are doing when it comes to empowering women.

Only a minuscule percentage of firms have more than 50% of leadership positions filled by women: 2.3% have a majority female board, just 1.2% have more than half of their C-suite positions filled by women, and only 4.6% have women in a majority of management positions. In other words, more than 95% of companies have majority male management.

And it’s not like the gender split is close to even. Women make up, on average, 20% of company boards, 14% of C-suite positions, and 23.3% of management roles.

Out of the 1,500 companies in our sample, just 18 (that is, 1.2%) had women in 35% or more positions in management, the C-suite, and on boards. Commonwealth Bank of Australia, L’Oreal, and French supermarket Carrefour are among this depressingly small group.

Progress in achieving a more equal gender balance is painfully slow. Though it’s not a direct comparison, the Pew Research Center showed that women made up 9.6% of Fortune 500 board members in 1995, and 20.2% in 2016. That means it’s taken more than 20 years for a 10 percentage point increase. And since the vast majority of new directors are recommended by other board members, the tendency to promote people like yourself enables the old boys’ club to live on.

There are regional differences, with Asian companies doing considerably worse on gender equality than their counterparts in Europe and North America. But neither Europe nor North America are clearly ahead in this race of losers; there are more women on boards in Europe, but better management gender equality in North America.

France, which legally mandated that large companies must have 40% female board members, performs well, relatively speaking, on most measures of gender equality. Japan’s corporate gender diversity is by far the worst among large, developed countries.

The data come from LeaderXXchange, an organization that advises companies on how to achieve diversity. The group recently consolidated statistics made public by companies and databases from auditor Vigeo-Eiris to create a search engine. The majority of data was updated in 2017, though some is from 2016, with the earliest data coming from December 2015.

LeaderXXchange also included data on how companies address gender equality. In total, 80% of companies have a commitment to improve diversity (this can include a vague statement or a more detailed policy), 16% have a specific target, and 33% have some form of implementation program (this could be small and straightforward, such as obscuring gender on resumes, but must feature doing something in practice.)

Overall, there was very little correlation between management diversity and targets or implementation programs. As the definitions were so broad, it’s possible that having an implementation program isn’t enough; it has to be an effective implementation program. A commitment to gender equality was associated with a better balance—though it’s not clear whether that’s because more gender-equal companies are more likely to have such a commitment, or because it actually brings about more female representation.

Of course, even in a perfectly egalitarian world there could be more men who choose to climb the corporate ladder than women. But the extreme disparities between the two genders show that men still dominate the workplace. Slowly, more women may be receiving invitations into the boardroom, but the broader leadership ranks remain overwhelmingly male.

Collectively, the data show that when women want to get ahead, they’re not just dealing with one sexist company, or industry, or even country. They deal with a sexist world.