The number of women in senior and middle management positions has increased over the past 20 years, although they remain largely under-represented in the top rungs, research by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Bureau for Employers’ Activities has found.

The Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum study shows the proportion of female managers has increased in 80 of the 180 countries for which ILO data is available.

Deborah France-Massin, Director of the ILO Bureau for Employers’ Activities, said:

“Our research is showing that women’s ever increasing participation in the labour market has been the biggest engine of global growth and competitiveness,”

“An increasing number of studies are also demonstrating positive links between women’s participation in top decision making teams and structures and business performance. But there is a long way to go before we achieve true gender equality in the workplace, especially when it comes to top management positions.”

However, only 5% of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women, in fact, the larger the company, the less likely it will have a woman on its board.

Women attain 10-20% of all board seats in a handful of countries. The majority of countries surveyed sit within the 5-10% bracket. In just four countries – Finland, Sweden, Norway and the UK – do women represent more than 20% of board members.

Women own and manage over 30% of all businesses but are more likely to be found in micro or small enterprises, many of which have few or no employees. Getting these women to grow their businesses is critical for national development, the report found, as companies with women at the top have been shown to perform better.

McKinsey & Company, for example, found that European companies with more women in their management teams had 17% higher stock growth between 2005 and 2007, and their average operating profit was nearly twice the industry average.

“It is critical for more women to reach senior management positions in strategic areas to build a pool of potential candidates for top jobs such as CEO or company presidents,” explained France-Massin.

“However, ‘glass walls’ still exist with the concentration of women in certain types of management functions like HR, communications and administration.”