In the new YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey, conducted in partnership with the Financial Times and the United Nation’s HeForShe initiative, many women cite cultural expectations as an obstacle to making it into the C-suite.

With the economy opening, business leaders are shifting their focus to priorities such as the advancement of women and diversity, inclusion and equity. Only 5% of chief executives globally are women, according to a study by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles; in the U.S., only 6% of Standard & Poor’s companies have a female CEO. 

To uncover the roadblocks that are holding women back, YPO reached out to all its members in March 2021 with the YPO Global Chief Executive Gender Equality Survey — the first of its kind — conducted in partnership with the Financial Times and the United Nation’s HeForShe initiative. YPO asked its members about the journeys both women and men took to the corner office, how leaders can counteract the impact of pandemic-related school closures and limited childcare on women’s careers, and the actions they can take to fast-track gender inclusiveness and gender parity in the workplace. 

Responses came from 2,079 executives ages 24 to 92 from 106 countries, among which 23% were women. The respondents run businesses in the USD10 million to more than USD1 billion revenue range, operating in more than 30 industries. 

What’s significant 

The good news is women are progressing in the workplace. Among survey respondents, 57% say their organization is somewhat or significantly more gender diverse than five years ago. 

However, the findings underline how much work looms ahead to overcome the factors that are keeping women out of the C-suite. Among female respondents, 47% said cultural expectations for their gender are the biggest obstacle to becoming CEO, compared to just 2% of men. Another big barrier is women’s heavy workload outside the home, with 40% citing “conflicting priorities related to work/life balance.” Underlining this reality, 73% of female respondents reported taking leave or sacrificing career advancement for family needs, compared to 42% of male respondents. 

And the barriers that keep women out of the C-suite also have an effect on gender parity throughout organizations, the survey found. Eighteen percent of female respondents said the burden of unpaid work such as childcare and household responsibilities due to traditional gender roles is the biggest obstacle to gender parity. The second biggest factor cited was unconscious bias, mentioned by 11% of respondents. 

Factors that impact women’s ability to make it to the helm could be having a broader impact. The survey found that women-led businesses have more gender diversity on their boards, in senior management and their organizations. For instance, women-led firms have twice the percentage of female directors as male-led firms. And for female-led firms, the percentage of women in senior management is 43%, compared to 26% at male-led firms. Female-led firms also have more women, period — with 48% of the workforce women, compared to 37% at male-run firms. 

But there were some areas where the gender gap was less pronounced. For all respondents, three factors drove them to the corner office most often: work ethic (45%), the ability to build relationships (32%) and passion (30%). For women, these factors took shape a little differently. They cited work ethic as No. 1 (42%), followed by the desire for challenging goals (30%).

Journey to the C-suite 

As they navigate cultural expectations and the burden of unpaid work, the women respondents who make it to CEO do so more slowly than their male counterparts. They took the helm at the average age of 35.4, compared to 33.6 for men, the survey found. 

One reason may be that cultural expectations influencing women’s career choices start affecting them early. About half of male respondents (51%) knew that they wanted to become chief executives early in their careers, compared to about one-third of female respondents. Among them, 29% of male respondents became chief executives of their family businesses, versus 23% of women.

Women had a slightly different path to becoming chief executive, with 38% most likely to have their first role as a professional manager, compared to 32% of men. It was more typical for men to start out as founders/entrepreneurs (38%) than for women (33%). In family businesses, both men and women took on their first chief executive role in their family businesses at about the same rate, with men at 31% and women at 29%. 

Challenges to getting to and staying at the top

For both male and female CEOs, the three top obstacles to becoming CEO were lack of a prior professional network (41%), fear of failure (40%) and work/life balance (also 40%). These obstacles varied by role, with first-time CEOs who are entrepreneur/founders citing getting access to capital (46%) and professional managers saying it was lack of sponsorship (18%). Fear of failure troubles many CEOs of family businesses, with 43% mentioning this. 

However, the factors vary somewhat by geography. For instance, “fear of failure” was more of a factor for respondents in Africa than elsewhere (47% of those in Africa cited this, compared to 39% for the rest of the world). In contrast, in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA), respondents were more likely to answer that getting “lack of mentors” was an obstacle (51% in MENA mentioned this factor versus 36% of those in the rest of the world). For Europeans, “being recognized” was a significant obstacle (35% Europe cited this, compared to 28% of the rest of world). 

Another big challenge is communication. Across the globe, leaders cited “navigating and communicating constant change” (50%), staying ahead of the competition (47%) and competing priorities (43%). Both male and female CEOs struggle to balance work and life responsibilities, the fourth most prevalent factor for men (42%) and the second for women (45%).

Women face some unique challenges, however. Two notable challenges cited by female chief executives in the survey were balancing respect with likability (30%) and overcoming others’ preconceptions of me (20%). In comparison, 17% of male chief executives cited balancing respect with likability as a challenge, and only 9% said they had to overcome others’ preconceptions.

Creating a climate of gender inclusiveness

There are many ways companies can move forward to bring about greater gender equality, according to respondents. To create a climate more hospitable to women, 24% said flexible work arrangements were helpful to achieving this goal. Other key factors are placing women and minorities in leadership roles (mentioned by 14%) and recruiting diverse candidates (9%).

Human resource policies also play a role. Forty-two percent of female respondents said their companies offer gender wage gap analyses voluntarily, while 35% of male respondents said they do. Conducting bias training, mentoring women leaders, supporting equal pay and communicating the company’s gender diversity policy to the entire organization emerged as key strategies for initiating progress. 

What we’ve learned

With women worldwide earning 77 cents for every dollar men do, and U.S. women just slightly above that at 81% — and women’s participation in the workforce suffering major setbacks during COVID-19, it will be a long time before men and women are equally represented in the C-suite in any country of the world. But many business leaders expressed feeling confident they are heading in the right direction. One sign was that 47% of male chief executives and 48% of women said they were “equally effective,” in avoiding gender bias in hiring. Building on what’s working could make a real difference in the prospects of women as companies try to undo the damage to gender equality that COVID-19 brought.