Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Flexible working is helping women in work – but they are still struggling to reach senior roles

View of the office.

While there are more women represented in the C-suite than ever before, progress for women lower down the ranks is far slower. Image: Unsplash/charles_forerunner

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

  • A fifth of women say that flexible working is helping them stay in their jobs – and it has not dampened their ambitions.
  • Although women are more often seen in the C-Suite than before, lower down the ranks progress is slower.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report finds the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity is 60.1% closed.

Flexible working is helping women remain in their jobs, but despite some progress, many are still struggling to reach senior roles, research suggests.

A fifth of women say that flexibility has helped them keep their roles or avoid reducing their hours, according to analysis by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org, which also finds that women who work flexibly are just as committed to their careers as women in office-based roles.

However, while there are more women represented in the C-suite than ever before, progress for women lower down the ranks is far slower.


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

A problem in the pipeline

The percentage of women in the C-suite has increased from 17% to 28% from 2015 to 2023, the research shows, while the representation of women at vice president and senior vice president level has also improved.

Exhibit illustrating the representation in corporate roles, by gender and race, 2023.
Women are becoming more prominent in top roles, but they are making less progress in their early careers. Image: McKinsey & Company

The data, based on responses of more than 27,000 employees in 33 organizations, shows women remain underrepresented across the pipeline more broadly, and especially women of colour.

Lower down the hierarchy, at manager and director level, women’s representation has grown by a much smaller percentage. Coupled with this, women at director level are leaving at a higher rate than in previous years, at a significantly higher rate than men at the same level.

The combination of these factors means there are fewer women in a position to rise up the ranks. McKinsey terms this as a “broken rung” in the career ladder, and says without fixing it reaching gender parity at the top is impossible.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2023 finds the gender gap for economic participation and opportunity is 60.1% closed – the second biggest divide of the four indices the report measures.

Exhibit illustrating the women promoted to manager for every hundred men promoted to manager, by ethnicity.
Women of colour are 25% less likely than men to be promoted to managerial positions. Image: McKinsey & Company

“While companies are increasing women’s representation at the top, doing so without addressing the broken rung offers only a temporary stopgap,” the report says. “Since men significantly outnumber women, there are fewer women to promote to director, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.”

For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager this year, 87 women were promoted. For women of colour there has been a backslide in progress – 73 women of colour were promoted for every 100 men this year, compared to 82 last year.

Flexibility alongside ambition

The problem is not a lack of ambition. Women are just as committed to their careers and climbing to more senior roles as men are – and the rise in flexibility has not changed that.

Women who work flexibly are also just as ambitious as women based in the office, and say that feeling less fatigued and burned out is the primary benefit. Others say they have more time to focus on their work. The research also suggests that when women work remotely, they face fewer microaggressions and have higher levels of psychological safety.

Exhibit illustrating the employers' percpetion of most impactful levers for attracting talent from diverse backgrounds.
Flexibility has helped women stay in work. Image: McKinsey & Company

And it is not just women who see choice over when and where to work as vital – half of women and a third of men say flexibility is a top-three factor in their company’s success.

But despite this, men are disproportionately benefitting from working in the office it seems, and compared to women are more likely to “be in the know”, receive mentorship, and be noticed and rewarded.

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