The number of female senior managers working in major UK businesses has fallen sharply by more than 40% in the past five years, according to figures from professional services company Pricewaterhouse Coopers.
In 2002, 38% of senior manager level posts in the FTSE 350 were occupied by women, but this has now sunk to just 22%.
The news will come as a surprise to many companies that have introduced flexible working arrangements and appointed heads of diversity in an attempt address equal opportunities in the workplace and retain talent.
At the most senior level, the figures show an improvement, but progress is painfully slow. The ranks of FTSE 350 female full-time chairmen or chief executives have grown, but can still be counted on one hand.
The study suggests one possible reason for this is the growing cost of childcare. The cost of a typical full-time nursery place in England has increased by 27% in the last five years, according to the Daycare Trust.
There is also evidence that more women are going into business for themselves. The number of self-employed females in the UK recently rose above a million for the first time according to the Labour Force Survey.
Sarah Churchman, head of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said: “At the top, things are moving slowly in the right direction but our middle management data paints a very different picture.
“Businesses tend to pay more attention to gender issues in senior positions and there appears to be an assumption that a supply from the middle ranks will eventually feed through. For big companies at least, this pipeline is shrinking at a worrying rate.”
The report is based on figures from PricewaterhouseCoopers Monks pay database which records pay benchmarking information on more than 10,000 UK management roles.