Although businesses have largely gone quiet on setting ambitious social goals, one major milestone — gender parity — could be in reach in less than a decade, according to a new analysis. Women are projected to make up half of corporate leadership as early as 2030, a report from S&P Global Market Intelligence notes.
The data “offers an encouraging finding in an otherwise bleak landscape,” found the report, which analyzed the companies in the Russell 3000 over the last decade.
At the end of 2021, nearly 22% of board seats and C-suite roles at these firms were held by women, the report found — a significant jump from 2010, when just 9.5% of these positions were female-held.
“If the exponential growth observed over the last 11 years were to continue, women would hold half of senior leadership positions in these US companies by 2030,” S&P Global concluded. A more conservative model, which assumes that growth in women’s representation would slow as a 50% mark is reached, has corporate leadership reaching gender parity by 2037, S&P said.
Those dates are far ahead of more dismal projections from the likes of the World Economic Forum, which concluded earlier this year that it would take 131 years for women to reach full economic and political parity with men.
One step forward, many steps back
S&P’s surprising finding is a rare bright spot in a field littered by forgotten corporate promises, from reducing carbon emissions to cutting plastics use to increasing people of color in leadership.
S&P Global Intelligence doesn’t track comparable figures for people of color in leadership, a spokeswoman told Fortune, but researchers with the Corporate Governance Initiative at Stanford found in 2020 that just 10% of Russell 3000 board members were “ethnic minorities,” and only 16% of large companies had an ethnically diverse C-suite.
Even with the improvement noted by S&P Global Intelligence, most of the heavy lifting is done by corporate boards, with the report noting that “gender parity in the C-suite remains elusive,” and isn’t likely to be reached before the middle of the 21st century. .
The Stanford research found that, even when women were present in the C-suite, they were “underrepresented in positions that directly feed into future CEO and board roles, and they [had] greater representation in positions that are less likely to lead to these appointments.” (The same was true, though to a lesser degree, of people of color.)
Previous research by S&P has concluded that female-led companies are more profitable, with female CEOs and CFOs being associated with stock price increases and better profitability for their companies. A Stanford research review found that the results were inconclusive, with board diversity being linked to better performance, worse performance or nothing whatsoever.
Many companies that set bold diversity or sustainability goals during the pandemic have found themselves under fire from both the political left and the right, with the Chamber of Commerce recently distancing itself from its longtime ally, the GOP, over differences on social issues.
The right increasingly decries so-called “woke capitalism” as a distraction from business’ job of making the most money possible for their owners, in other words, for abandoning the “shareholder theory” or Friedman doctrine, named for the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman. For the left, it’s a distraction from the urgent task of reducing companies’ sway on politics and culture. For its part, Standard & Poor’s, the ratings division of S&P Global, said this week that it would no longer grade borrowers on ESG metrics after customer backlash.