Closing The Gap

79 percent of global companies say they haven't prioritized achieving gender equality, new IBM research finds

Pedestrians walk in front of the IBM building in New York.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

Advancing women in the workforce is not a priority for firms worldwide, and the gender gap in leadership will likely persist until 2073 without corporate action.

That's according to a new study from IBM, which polled 2,300 executives and business professionals across all industries about their initiatives to close gender leadership gaps. Seventy-nine percent of respondents said they haven't prioritized achieving gender equality among leaders within their organizations, despite research proving that gender equality and diversity leads to higher profits.

The study also found that women held only 18 percent of senior leadership roles. IBM's Chief Marketing Officer Michelle Peluso said the dismal statistic is a result of corporations failing to realize that gender equality is positive for the bottom line.

"We haven't yet moved to formalizing gender equality as a business quality. It's imperative for businesses," Peluso told CNBC Make It. "There is countless research that shows that more inclusive teams produce better results."

Men interviewed also underestimated workplace gender bias, according to the study — 65 percent of men believed they were just as likely as women to be promoted, despite the lack of women in leadership positions in all industries. The study concluded that few companies took ownership of gender equality issues, and that most applied a "laissez-faire" approach to diversity rather than implementing real business solutions to advance women.

There were a set of companies, however, that IBM called the "First Movers." Making up 12 percent of the study sample, First Mover firms had concrete initiatives for gender equality. All these firms agreed that gender-inclusive organizations were more successful financially, compared to just 38 percent of other companies. Additionally, all the First Mover firms said their top business priority was advancing women to leadership positions, compared to only 9 percent of other companies that said the same.

"The good news is that the First Movers give us a road map," said Peluso. "They are outperforming their peers, there's lots of hope."

"What we have learned from First Movers is the importance of setting measurable goals and defining a systematic approach to inclusion across the organization. This means everything from recruiting to rewarding, developing, retaining and promoting women, she said. "And, then, we must ourselves accountable to meet these goals."

The study pointed to several initiatives that companies should take to foster gender equality. They include using performance indicators to advance women in the company, put gender equality into the corporate mission statement and implement flexible work arrangements and sponsorship opportunities for women.

"If we actually don't make this a business priority, it will not happen on its own. Like any priority, this requires us to roll up our sleeves and get it done together," said Peluso. "While the stat that it will take more than 50 years to produce gender equality is a tough stat, the flip side is that companies are showing that much faster progress is possible, and that we'll see better financial outcomes."

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