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Women in senior leadership positions pass critical 30% mark despite global pandemic

The number of women holding senior leadership positions in midmarket businesses globally has hit 31% despite the COVID-19 pandemic affecting economies around the world, according to Grant Thornton’s annual Women in Business report.

Nguyen Thi Vinh Ha, Deputy General Director, National Head of Advisory Services – Grant Thornton Vietnam says: “Passing the 30% of women in senior roles globally is an important milestone for businesses, but not the end goal. Those businesses that want to reap the benefits of a better gender balance, must continue to take action to enable women to realise their ambitions.”  In fact Vietnam exceeded the global average with 39% and ranked number 3 globally (amongst the 29 countries surveyed) behind Philippines and South Africa (an increase of 6% over 2020) on a par with Brazil and India and ranked 2nd in Asia Pacific behind the Philippines with 48%.

Seeing the proportion of women leaders rise to 31% is encouraging, given the global figure remained stubbornly stuck at 29% for the previous two years (2019 and 2020). It also passes the important 30% threshold, which research[1] shows is the minimum representation needed to change decision-making processes. All regions surveyed except for APAC (28%) have now surpassed the crucial 30% milestone.  

Another encouraging finding is the types of leadership roles women are occupying. Grant Thornton’s research reveals higher numbers of women across operational C-suite roles compared to last year, with the proportion of female CEOs up 6pp to 26%, female CFOs also up 6pp to 36%, and female COOs up 4pp to 22%. The proportion of women in the more traditional senior HR roles was down slightly at 38% (-2pp on 2020), and has trended downwards since 2019.  The most popular positon for women, in Vietnam, in 2021 was CFO at 60% (up from 32% in 2020) putting Vietnam no.1 in Asia Pacific. The position of Human Resource Director ranked second with 59%, which was also a very common position in the rest of APAC.  Vietnam made significant strides in the number of women holding the position of CEO with an increase from 7% to 20% in 2021 (ranking it no 7 in APAC).

Additionally, over two-thirds (69%) of respondents agree that in their organisations, new working practices as a result of COVID-19 will benefit women’s career trajectories long-term, despite potentially hindering factors which may be down to the flexibility that remote working offers. Whilst the percentage of businesses agreeing with this statement in Vietnam was above the global average it proved a majority with 83% of the respondents in agreement.

While the number of women in leadership roles has grown, questions remain over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, particularly working mothers. UN data shows that, before the pandemic, women did three times as much unpaid housework as men, and mounting evidence indicates that COVID-19 is only increasing this disparity – as well as adding the extra responsibilities of childcare and home schooling while schools are closed[2]

Valerie Teo, Deputy General Director, Tax Partner - Grant Thornton Vietnam says: “Breaking the 30% barrier certainly does represent progress – having grown from 19% 17 years ago when we first started tracking this – but these gains can easily be lost. Reassuringly, 92% of businesses globally say they are taking action to ensure the engagement and inclusion of their employees against the negative backdrop of the pandemic and with the normalisation of remote working, employers are becoming ever more flexible about how, where and when employees do their jobs." 

“Now more than ever, businesses need to stay focused on what is enabling women to progress to leadership positions, so that women move forward rather than back as a result of the global pandemic.”


[1] Dahlerup, D. (2006). The Story of the Theory of Critical Mass. Politics & Gender, 2(4), 511-522. doi:10.1017/S1743923X0624114X

[2] UN Women, Nov 2020


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