• Companies are defaulting to hiring male CEOs during the pandemic, says a new report.
  • Women make up only 5% of chief executives globally.
  • Ireland has the highest percentage of female CEOs (15%) and Brazil the lowest (0%).
  • Report is further evidence of the pandemic’s impact on women.

The world’s biggest companies have been recruiting fewer women to chief executive roles since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research.

Women make up only 5% of chief executives globally and remain significantly underrepresented, finds a report from the executive search firm, Heidrick & Struggles.

The US-based company analyzed the backgrounds of the 965 chief executives leading the largest listed companies in 20 markets around the world to understand the skills and experiences that shaped their path to the top role.

The report, Route to the Top 2020, compared CEO appointments made after 11 March, 2020 – when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic – to those appointed from January 2019 to 10 March, 2020.

COVID-19 has caused companies to shift their focus to appointing chief executives with a proven track record and previous CEO experience – a strategy that favours men. Women CEO appointments decreased from 12% in the cohort appointed after October 2019 to only 6% after the pandemic announcement. Ireland has the highest percentage of female CEOs (15%), and Brazil has the lowest (0%).

“While a proven track record is extremely important during periods of uncertainty, we know that broader diversity of experience, sustainability and purpose will be viewed as critical to long-term survival and growth when the global business environment returns to some semblance of normal,” says Jeff Sanders, vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles.

chart showing various statistics as to how women can 'get to the top' of their companies
Ireland has the highest percentage (15%) of female CEOs globally.
Image: Route to the Top 2020, Heidrick & Struggles

Reversing decades of progress

This is the latest in a growing body of evidence showing the pandemic’s unequal impact on women.

The United Nations warned in September that COVID-19 would push 47 million more women and girls below the poverty line, reversing decades of progress to eradicate extreme poverty.

“We know that women take most of the responsibility for caring for the family; they earn less, save less and hold much less secure jobs – in fact, overall, women’s employment is 19% more at risk than men’s,” says UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

various statistics showing covid's effect on women
The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound effect on women.
Image: UNDP (From Insights to Action: Gender Equality in the wake of COVID-19)

About 70% of domestic workers globally had lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 by June this year, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank.



In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

In corporate America, one in four women may downshift their careers or quit the workforce because of pressures caused by the pandemic. This is according to the 2020 Women in the Workplace study by management consultancy McKinsey & Company and the women’s campaign group LeanIn.Org.

Gender parity still 100 years off

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 found that overall gender parity was still almost 100 years away across the 107 countries covered continuously since the first edition of the report 14 years ago.

In economic participation and opportunity, the gender deficit more than doubles to 257 years.

Globally, only 55% of women (aged 15-64) are engaged in the labour market as opposed to 78% of men, the report finds.

“The report highlights three primary reasons for this,” the Forum says. “Women have greater representation in roles that are being automated; not enough women are entering professions where wage growth is the most pronounced (most obviously, but not exclusively, technology), and women face the perennial problem of insufficient care infrastructure and access to capital.”

how the gender gap has evolved in recent years
Gender equality in educational attainment is now only 12 years away.
Image: World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, 2020

To address these deficiencies, workforce strategies must ensure that women are better equipped in terms of improved skills, or reskilling to deal with the challenges, the Forum says.

This includes taking advantage of opportunities in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, such as roles in data, artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

Diverse hiring is another area for improvement, along with creating inclusive work cultures.