When IBM launched its first women in leadership study in 2019, the research revealed a persistently glaring gender gap in the global workplace. At that time, only 18% of senior leadership positions worldwide were held by women. And only 12% of organizations surveyed were going above and beyond their peers to address it head on by formalizing the advancement of women as a top ten business priority.

In the past two years, many organizations have seen an exodus of women during the Great Resignation and have felt the velocity of digital transformation. These shifts have been juxtaposed with an entrance of social and cultural awareness to the forefront of the corporate world. But for those who stay, the pipeline for women’s leaders has expanded. That’s the mixed news delivered by IBM’s Institute for Business Value (IBV) in new follow-up data from U.S.-based organizations.

This geography-specific update to the 2021 women in leadership study sought to understand if women’s leadership opportunities had advanced in the United States in the wake of the great digital shift.

A pipeline of plenty in the U.S.

Though the percentage of U.S. women in the C-suite and on executive boards have essentially remained flat, women have stepped into the talent pipeline over the past 12 months, an overall increase of 40%, according to the IBV. Those women’s chances of advancement are higher if their employer is led by a woman.

Enabled by more flexible work policies, and a bring-your-whole-self to work ethos, some 5 million executive women in the United States now stand ready to lead corporate America. They’re finding they can be evaluated on their own merits. unencumbered by the pre-pandemic norms that favored in-person networking and longer hours at the office or with clients.

When given prime opportunities to lead, women get results. In fact, companies where women lead perform better financially, finds a McKinsey survey, generating up to 50% higher profits. The 12% identified in IBM’s 2019 survey as the most committed to driving change agree. They all view gender inclusivity as a driver of financial performance, compared to only 36% of other organizations surveyed.

Women remain underrepresented at the top. Let’s do something to change that.

Though the leadership pipeline of women has grown in a variety of professional, managerial and SVP roles, the newest IBM research warns that many are still not breaking into the C-suite or executive board. Startlingly, fewer women hold top C-suite and executive board positions in 2022 than they did in 2021, dropping by roughly a point.

But those few who do end up in a senior seat are driven to change the status quo. In fact, 72% of women CEOs vs. 16% of male counterparts assert that “advancing more women into leadership roles in our organization is among our top formal business priorities.”

But the job of lifting women up can’t be given to this small population of women CEOs alone. A failure for organizations to take concerted actions could lead gender parity to move at a “snail’s pace” worldwide. At the current rate of change, the global gender gap will not close for 135 years, as estimated by the World Economic Forum. A persistent trend of gender pay disparity, which alarmingly gets worse as women age, could have drastic economic impacts as well — especially as the number of single mothers continues to increase.

With so much distance to cover, organizations need to apply the same attention to equal advancement that they reserve for other organizational goals. It’s time to close the gap between awareness and action on equality in position and pay.

How the demand for AI skills shifts the gender equation

The digital transformation of the wider workplace is expanding demand in the technical sector. The changing nature of work has resulted in a surge in demand for AI and machine learning skills across all industries. The number of data scientist and engineering roles in particular has grown an average of 35% annually, according to LinkedIn’s 2021 U.S. Emerging Jobs Report.

This proliferation of technology jobs has opened a wider job market. That has meant more opportunities for women, even for those who possess little technology backgrounds, to jump-start lucrative careers. But while these technical fields have become easier for women to enter, advancement hasn’t been as fast as in other sectors, with only 52 women promoted for every 100 men, according to a 2021 McKinsey report coauthored with LeanIn.Org.

The report points out that mentors and sponsors can help women in technical roles connect with experienced colleagues, develop their leadership acumen, and hone their communication skills. Direct managers can play important role too.

One such example is Gabriela de Queiroz, an open-source advocate and IBM chief data scientist who manages a team of data scientists and AI experts at IBM, six out of seven whom are women. She’s committed to upholding IBM’s tradition of maintaining diversity in an industry where women have traditionally been underrepresented.

To help her data-savvy reports become valuable contributors to the business, de Queiroz looks to help the six women on her team better convey the business value of data through storytelling.

When de Queiroz speaks in public, she brings a junior team member to deliver a presentation alongside her to make sure they build the necessary confidence they’ll need to advance their careers. “My whole pitch is, give back. This is a cycle.”

What your organization can do differently right now

From hiring managers and HR to public policymakers, it’s time to take action and confront facets of gender inequality that impact both the home and the workplace.

Working mothers in the U.S. face potential burnout as they face a lack of flexible work arrangements. Demanding careers and an inability to take significant paid leave are two reasons why U.S. mothers are more likely than fathers to quit their careers while still in their prime. Another is a lack of available childcare, according to a survey published by the Pew Research Center.

As companies look to bring staff back into the office, they can consider the present obstacles that could prevent women from stepping into leadership roles. Some companies have gone the extra mile with fully-paid gender-neutral parent leave, phase-back after parental leave and backup childcare. Work hour and location flexibility is also important. Such efforts have landed IBM (ranked No.1) on Comparably’s list of the best large companies for women in 2021.

Digital transformation itself can play a role in elevating HR to be more strategic, agile and responsive. A recent McKinsey report calls out self-service platforms that give line managers more responsibility for recruiting and more flexibility on skills evaluation. The automation of traditional administrative tasks can allow HR to more thoroughly collect and analyze employee data, including the experience of women or women’s networking groups, to make more informed decisions.

There’s a lot of work ahead to ensure equal advancement in the workplace. Women have made up 51.1% of the population since 2013 and outnumber men in most U.S. states. It’s well past time that organizations look more like the world we live in.

 

Businesses everywhere have entered a new era of digital reinvention, fueled by innovations in hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence. IBM is uniquely positioned to help our clients succeed in this radically changed business landscape by partnering with them to deliver on five levers of digital advantage: shape and predict data-driven outcomesautomate at scale for productivity and efficiency, secure all touchpoints all the time, modernize infrastructures for agility and speed and transform with new business strategies, open technologies, and co-creation.

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