Grant Thornton’s report also highlights that the percentage of businesses in the UK with no women in senior management has also risen from 36% in 2016 to 41% in 2017.
After some progress in recent years, UK firms now appear to be going backwards, despite increased pressure to improve gender diversity levels, the firm warned.
The number of women in senior positions is now frighteningly close to the levels reported over a decade ago when Grant Thornton’s first annual survey in 2004 revealed the proportion of senior business roles held by women stood at 18%.
The UK is the second worst performing EU country in terms of female representation in senior roles.
In Germany – the worst performing EU country - the proportion of senior roles held by women stands at 18% and in Greece and the Netherlands it stands at 20%.
Overall, the UK had the fifth lowest proportion of women in senior business roles, with Japan recording the lowest (7%) and Argentina the second lowest (15%).
According to the report, the countries with the highest proportion of senior roles held by women are Russia (47%), Indonesia (46%) and Estonia (40%).
While the proportion of senior business roles held by women across the globe increased by 1% from 2016, hitting a high of 25% progress is still slow, the report warned, highlighting that the figure has only increased 6% since the firm’s research began 13 years ago.
Sacha Romanovitch, CEO at Grant Thornton UK said, “It’s encouraging to see that globally we have seen some improvement in the proportion of senior business roles held by women, however it is moving at a painfully slow rate.
“Diversity is central to shaping a vibrant economy in which people and businesses thrive,” she added.
According to Grant Thornton’s data, developing regions are continuing to lead the charge on diversity with developed economies lagging behind.
Eastern Europe performs best, with 38% of senior roles held by women in 2017 and just 9% of businesses with no women in senior management.
Meanwhile, the MINT economies (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) saw the most improvement, with the proportion of senior roles held by women rising from 24% in 2016 to 28% in 2017. The percentage of businesses with no women in senior management f from 36% in 2016 to 27% in 2017.
This is a significant contrast to the major economies of the G7, which have remained static at 22% of senior roles held by women and 39% of businesses with no women in senior management.
“The diversity agenda is all about creating an environment that is conducive to all and what women see of leadership isn’t always that attractive. To this end we need to see a fundamental shift in what leadership looks like and what is expected of people in senior leadership positions,” Romanovitch said.
"Established notions of leadership are letting women down,” she warned.
“Businesses need to re-balance what leadership is to make it attractive to future leaders who expect the role to be interesting, meaningful, flexible and with reasonable reward too.”
As uncertainty remains a concern for businesses, Grant Thornton’s report, also highlights the importance of gender diversity in senior teams tasked with managing risk.
The data revealed that men in the UK are more likely to see risk when considering issues affecting economic and political change both nationally and internationally, with women in the UK being more likely to consider if the new risk represents an opportunity than men.
Romanovitch added, "The increase in businesses lacking gender diversity in senior management comes at a time when companies need to develop resilience in the face of global volatility and increasing levels of uncertainty.
"Successfully managing risk should be a key priority for any dynamic business and will be crucial in finding those opportunities to unlock their potential for sustained growth. These findings challenge the presumption that women are more risk averse than men and highlights the crucial value that comes from having their voice at senior levels.
The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) also raised concerns that while women out-number men at junior levels, not enough make it through middle management and to the top.
To achieve a 50/50 split of management jobs between men and women by 2024, the CMI calculated that the UK will need 1.5 million new female managers over the period.
In a bid to improve the outlook, the professional body has launched CMI Women, a new initiative that aims to achieve gender parity across the UK’s management population by 2024, and to help employers unlock more value in the UK’s workforce to address our productivity gap.
Ann Francke, CEO of CMI said, “On International Women’s Day employers need to be bold for change and look at ways they can fill the ‘missing middle’ of women absent from management roles. Filling the missing middle of women managers is essential to widen the talent pool as UK businesses face up to the challenge of tackling the productivity gap that currently leaves us lagging 18% behind our G7 competitors.”
"Through CMI Women we will provide organisations with a Blueprint for Balance, while also enabling individuals to play their part in accelerating their own careers and supporting others to do the same. It is by working together in this way that we can find the solutions needed to find the 1.5 million extra women managers we’ll need by 2024 to achieve the gender balance that is critical for future UK business success.”
Chris Roberts, practice director at business performance and leadership consultancy firm Accelerating Experience added, “International Women’s Day serves as a timely reminder that there is an awful long way for UK businesses to go before they achieve gender equality in the workplace, especially at board level.
“There is too much focus on reporting data, and not enough practical action of calling out poor behaviours. Equally, diversity is being reinforced when we should be growing inclusivity. We need to see this addressed through people strategies, championed at board level. These, crucially, must involve engagement with both male and female employees. We need to see male and female employees working together towards changing business’ cultures, rather than in closed networks.”