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Retail and food/beverage lag in senior women leaders

Wednesday, March 16, 2016  
Posted by: Barbara Francella
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The retail and food and beverage industries lag behind education, healthcare and hospitality in senior women's leadership, according to a recent global study by Grant Thornton. The food and beverage industry finished fourth among 16 industries measured, with 27 percent representation; the retail industry finished eighth, with 22 percent.

Women’s leadership is being hindered by a number of factors, from entrenched social norms and gender bias to parenthood and archaic business models, according to the report.

Drawing on 5,404 interviews in 35 economies and 20 in-depth interviews with senior business leaders, Grant Thornton found:

  • Women are more likely to be promoted to management support positions, rather than leadership roles at the core of the business.
  • Gender bias is a significant career barrier
  • Women view childcare and family care responsibilities as career-blockers
  • Men network to advance their careers differently than women

While women make up 22 percent of senior management globally, they continue to be concentrated in management support functions, suggesting a bottleneck for women upon reaching the management level, according to "Women in Business: A path to leadership.”

The most popular leadership role for women globally is human resources director (27 percent). Women are only a third as likely to be CEO or COO globally (both 9 percent).

Leaning in against bias

Grant Thornton found a pervasive belief that not enough women put themselves forward for promotion or for stretch assignments that will give them the experience and visibility necessary for advancement to senior leadership. While men will "put their hands up even if they are underqualified, women often "just don’t know how good they are” and must be encouraged to take on stretch assignments, according to Sacha Romanovitch, CEO elect of Grant Thornton UK.

While there are many instances of women not "leaning in,” there are just as many stories of women who say they’ve done everything to climb, "but [have] ultimately been frustrated because they do not get appointed by the men around,” added Linda Wirth, a gender expert with the International Labour Organization.

Women participating in the study were almost twice as likely as their male peers to cite gender bias as a barrier to women’s advancement (19 percent vs. 10 percent). Gender bias may range from questions asked in interviews, to men presenting women’s ideas as their own in meetings, to making sexist remarks or subtly undermining women’s abilities by calling them "girls.”

Gender bias is particularly important with respect to hiring processes and women’s ability to move along the path into senior roles given long-held masculine stereotypes of leadership, according to the report.

"Style, gravitas, all of the subjective leadership qualities that we don’t tend to define still exist as biases against women today,” said Mark McLane, global head of diversity and inclusion at Barclays.

The motherhood penalty

A cultural bias against working mothers also continues to be a stubborn career hurdle. Parenthood is viewed by women (28 percent) as a major barrier to female advancement into senior roles, a view supported by relatively fewer men (21 percent), according to the report. 

And whether mothers or not, many women have other significant family responsibilities — 24 percent of the female respondents cited these as a barrier to advancement.

People are "positively opting out of the way up the greasy pole,” said Francesca Lagerberg, sponsor on people and cultural issues at Grant Thornton, "because they’re making different decisions about quality of life.”

For employees who do pursue senior roles, formal business meetings are still overwhelmingly the principal method of networking by which leaders, both men (51 percent) and women (49 percent), secured their senior-level positions. But while 42 percent of men used networking events or conferences to secure their role, only 30 percent of women did. Meanwhile 27 percent of women used their social or online networks compared with just 20 percent of men.

However, women’s greater reliance on social media networking worries some industry leaders.  "Social media can never be nearly as valuable as face-to-face contact,” Jill Krueger, CEO of Symbria in the United States, told Grant Thornton, because "60% of our revenues are a result of informal networking.”

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