Over the years, a changing corporate world has become more open for women, but the glass ceiling remains very much in place. This invisible barrier, which hinders women from rising to leadership positions, is just one of the identified constraints on women’s professional progress. The other is the leaky pipeline, or the increasing scarcity of women as you go up the corporate hierarchy.
Women account for half of the labor force in Portugal, but it lags behind the European average for women in top positions (Exhibit 1). There has been almost no growth in the representation of women in top roles during the past two years. Despite the efforts of companies to develop policies that promote equal opportunity, Portugal’s glass ceiling apparently won’t shatter anytime soon.
Why are women—who at the start of their careers place as much importance on advancement as men do—largely absent from C-suites and senior managerial roles?1 And how can this imbalance be remedied, beyond corporate policies and government regulations?
Women Matter 2023, which focuses on Iberia and includes insights from 45 Portuguese and Spanish companies, aims to answer these questions. The present report offers our perspectives on Portugal. At a high level, the sluggish pace of advancement of women toward leadership positions results from multiple complex factors. These include invisible barriers in work and family life, as well as the widely held perception among women that companies don’t cater to their needs. Gender stereotypes are also part of the equation: women often occupy positions in support functions rather than line positions, and that can shrink their management prospects.
Even when women do progress to the upper echelons, they still take on the lion’s share of family and household responsibilities at home. Thirty-nine percent of top women managers, from CEOs to senior managers, say they are the sole overseer of the household, versus just 8 percent of men. Women’s aspirations at work reflect this difference: 43 percent of men are keen to take on positions of high responsibility, but only 36 percent of women feel the same. Women are not only less likely to feel confident that they will progress to higher levels in the workplace but also become increasingly disenchanted as the years go by.
What’s more, women are less inclined than men to take up opportunities abroad: only 2 percent of women in senior-management positions participate in international programs, compared with 9 percent of men (Exhibit 2). Since 60 percent of the CEOs of the companies analyzed have previous international experience, mobility could be an invisible barrier to women applying for general-management positions.
All these factors conspire to limit women’s career paths and opportunities—and also hurt companies, since women leaders can help them boost their competitiveness and profits. In fact, as the current report argues, women are better managers: their teams are more satisfied, and companies with more of them in the leadership have higher levels of employee satisfaction. That is very important in the context of the Great Resignation and the war for talent.
Increasing the number of women in senior management will require a nuanced human-resources approach and a willingness by companies to offer more flexible working conditions. Corporations in Portugal could reap the benefits of increased levels of female leadership by adopting a distinctive, personalized approach to individual needs and expectations. Identifying and eliminating invisible barriers that hinder promotion is potentially the first step to shifting the gender imbalance.
While much work remains to achieve parity, younger generations inspire hope. Among people under 40 years old, 39 percent of women, versus 32 percent of men, would be more interested in advancing to senior positions if they came with greater flexibility. This parity of sentiment reflects a shift in expectations and values from those of previous generations.
The report includes a call to action by outlining possible solutions to overcome the lack of equality in Portugal’s C-suites. Companies can commit themselves to change by introducing measurable objectives for implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) measures and promoting mentorship and sponsorship. They could provide training to help managers use DEI policies to eliminate biases in the workplace, as well. The report also suggests that companies take a stand by ensuring that women and men have equal access to promotional opportunities, appointing women to line positions, and implementing new work models that support flexibility.
Businesses need to shift from attracting more women (quantity) to ensuring that they pass through the highest stages of the hierarchy (quality). That will require a more personalized approach. But 25 percent of companies have women in more than 40 percent of their leadership positions. That is grounds for optimism.