How women can break through the glass ceiling

Newton's CEO on keeping women in the boardroom
Newton's CEO on keeping women in the boardroom   

Boosting the "economic power" of all women in society is a key way women can at first reach – and then stay – in the boardroom, according to a new global study.

After examining which factors are key to getting women higher up the on the corporate ladder, the study found that this "economic power" is often determined by factors outside the workplace, such as education and progress their countries have made in gender equality and labor force participation.

The research, which was commissioned by BNY Mellon and Newton Investment Management and conducted by Cambridge University's Judge Business School, looked at 1,002 companies from the Forbes Global 2000 list across 41 countries spanning six continents and 51 industries, between 2004 to 2013.

A country's collective values and beliefs about gender equality, humane orientation and assertiveness were bigger influencers on a woman's economic power than were previously understood, the study found.

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To a lesser extent -- but still significant -- the quality and availability of maternity and paternity benefits, flexible hours and the right to return to work, were another set of key drivers for both getting women on board and keeping them there.

The top performing countries for female economic power were found to be Australia, Norway and Denmark. The U.S. came sixth in the list of top countries while Saudi Arabia, India and United Arab Emirates and Qatar are amongst the lowest.

Group of women and man
Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

"There is a clear effect of national cultural traits on female board membership in countries around the world," explained Professor Sucheta Nadkarni, the lead author of the study said.

"In nations with an assertive business culture such as Germany and Greece, fewer women get to the corporate boardrooms, but those who get there are able to stay longer. The issue of longevity of female board members needs to be examined further to determine whether it means success, tokenism, powerful networking or capability. This research opens a host of questions on this issue."

Encouraging businesses to embrace women for executive roles has prompted some European governments, for instance, in Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, to introduce quotas that mean there have to be a certain number of women on any board.

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This study showed that while quotas can help to get women into the boardroom, they have no significant impact on keeping them there, however.

Helena Morrisey, chief executive at Newton Asset Management, told CNBC Thursday that the study showed that legislative measures were not so effective.

"What the study found was that the biggest driver of sustained improvement in terms of the progression of women was actually empowering all women by increasing girls' schooling, increasing the percentage of women in the labor force – quite different from saying you need interventions like legislation to get women in the boardroom."

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