Q5 – Female top managers

This question was asked to the public in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the UK in the Sustainable Development Misconception Study 2020

In December 2020 Gapminder launches a brand new service for upgrading your worldview, where you will be able to take this (and many other) tests and become certified gapm.io/upgrader


How many companies in the world have a woman as top manager or CEO?

a) Around 2%

b) Around 10%

c) Around 18%

Correct answer

Around 18% of companies worldwide have female top managers.

More and more bosses are women

The world of business is still so embarrassingly male dominated, so people tend to underestimate the number of women who actually make it to the top. This misconception must be battled as it slows down the speed of change. Young girls might not aim high enough because they get an outdated worldview from their parents and teachers, who underestimate their actual chances of becoming business leaders. And young boys continue to assume that men are better leaders. 

Businesses that are run by women seem to generate higher profit than average companies, according to multiple independent stock market studies by ILO and S&P Global and Credit Suisse. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a female CEO produces higher profit. It’s just as likely that the “company culture” in companies that select female CEOs are more open minded and more profitable.

Data sources

According to the Enterprise Survey[1] by the World Bank[1], some 18% of businesses had a female CEO. In another, recent study by Grant Thornton “Women in business 2020”[2] from 2019, the estimate is 20%, which is a rapid increase from their 9% estimate for 2016. But their estimate is far from globally representative, as it’s based on interviews in just 32 countries.

To avoid overstating progress, we use the estimate 18% from the World Bank as our correct answer. This is based on interviews conducted during the period 2015 to 2019 with tens of thousands of businesses with 5 or more employees in the manufacturing and service sectors in 144 countries. Firms with 100% government/state ownership are not included. The number of businesses per country ranges from 150 in small countries, to nearly 2000 in large countries. Because the data is based on a small sample of all companies in the world, there is a large margin of error which we take into consideration by putting big differences between the correct answer 18%, and the two wrong options: 10% and 2%. The World Bank’s trends have also been rising steadily, why it’s reasonable to believe that the real number would be higher than 18% if a new round of interviews were conducted today. According to three independent studies[3][4][5] of companies in lots of countries, it seems like businesses with female CEOs on average outperform business with male CEOs. Please note that all studies clearly state that the finding doesn’t necessarily show a causal relationship of higher or lower profits is caused by the CEO’s gender. It’s just as likely that the explanation is a kind of company culture which leads to selecting a female CEO and that such a company culture also is a more profitable company culture. A company with such culture can also be as profitable with a male CEO.

Source 1 – World Bank Enterprise Survey

Source 2 – Women in business 2020 – Grant Thornton International

Source 3 – ILO – Women in Business and Management – “The business case for change”, page 44

Source 4 – Gender 3000 by Credit Suisse Research Institute

Source 5 – “When Women Lead, Firms Win”, Daniel J. Sandberg for S&P Global