Study: Women Lose Ground in C-Suite for First Time in Two Decades

In what researchers say could represent an “alarming turning point,” the number of women holding executive corporate leadership roles is now declining, according to a study published in March by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

After nearly 20 years of steady progress, the study found women lost seats across C-suite positions last year for the first time since 2005. According to S&P, women held only 11.8% of the 15,000 C-suite positions at publicly traded U.S. firms in 2023 – down from 12.2% in 2022.

But that’s not all. The study also found that year-over-year growth in women’s representation among all senior leadership positions in the U.S. dwindled to 0.5%, the lowest rate in a decade.

“The growth in women’s representation among senior corporate positions, once a bright spot for gender parity, potentially faces an alarming turning point,” the study said. “Exponential growth over a decade is showing signs of losing momentum. Growth no longer appears exponential.”

The study’s results suggest that women lost roughly five dozen “positions with ‘chief’ in the title to men last year,” according to Insurance Journal. Additionally, the data indicates that the overall decline is indeed significant: Women’s representation at the highest rungs of the corporate ladder had increased from 6.5% in 2005 to 22.3% in 2023.

The trends identified by S&P appear consistent with recent findings in the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report. That study concluded that gender parity has recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels, but the “pace of change has stagnated” and “women continue to bear the brunt of the current cost of living crisis and labour market disruptions.”

The authors of the S&P study did not place blame for the downturn in female leadership on a particular culprit. They did note, however, the diminished focus on gender parity in the corporate world and a sense of declining momentum behind diversity initiatives at companies. The study found that mentions of “diversity” and “inclusion” in earnings calls held by companies in the S&P 500 surged in 2020 but have decreased every quarter since. In fact, mentions of those terms for the 2023 fiscal year hit their lowest point since 2012, according to the research.

The study was limited to companies in the S&P Global Total Market Index, and data was primarily sourced from Proxy Filings DEF-14A and amendments to 10-K filings, as well as other regulatory filings and press releases.

Despite the grim report on corporate gender parity, the news isn’t all bad for supporters of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Based on data obtained from the Intelligize Board Profiles & Compensation solution, racial/ethnic board diversity across all public companies increased in 2023. According to disclosures in proxy statements of SEC registrants in general (and not those limited to a specific index), the number of non-Caucasian/white directors increased from 27.64% in 2022 to 28.22% in 2023.

More racial and ethnic diversity on corporate boards of directors will probably be cold comfort for women aspiring to join the upper echelons of corporate America, though.

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