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Why are so few women making it to the top? And 4 things you can do about it.

When we look at the global statistics for female leaders, we find that whilst great strides have been made, we still have a long way to go to see gender parity at the most senior levels of organisations.

According to the share of women in Senior Management is Increasing Incrementally with about 29% of senior management roles globally held by women in 2020. Whilst this is the highest than at any time in our history, it does not reflect the reality that 51% of the global population is female and they are likely to be educated to the same high standards as their male counterparts. Which begs the question: what is stopping them making it all the way to the top?

In their global report ‘When Women Thrive 2020’ Mercer found:

“Despite investments in more agile working practices, it remains challenging for women to advance beyond a certain point in their careers into senior leadership positions, particularly given that women still shoulder a greater share of caring responsibilities for children and elders.”

In my recent book The Female Edge, I highlighted many of the issues contributing to this situation, most of which comes down to an uneven playing field, where we still have a propensity to see leadership in male terms and career structures that only consider the person and not their immediate home and family realities.

Organisations and individual leaders can do much to set this imbalance right and move towards more equal leadership. This needs to go beyond target setting and diverse hiring practices (both of which are essential and laudable initiatives) to nurturing, supporting and developing your female leaders or high potential talent across their entire career, not just when an organisation has an opening at a senior level.

If you ask women why they leave their role before reaching a senior global role, repeated themes emerge, which are addressed in Women in The Workplace 2021 report by McKinsey and LeanIn. The number one reason is the lack of flexibility around family commitments. Additionally, it is a lack of support and sponsorship by senior leaders to help women (particularly women of colour) advance above a certain point in the organisational hierarchy.

There are many strategies that can be applied to help address this gap, but here are four proven ones:

1. Formal Allyship and Sponsorship

Studies have proven the effectiveness of targeted sponsorship and ally-ship in helping women rise. Very often the lack of advocacy during promotion cycles or when opportunities arise can be detrimental to women; men often have more informal and widespread networks open to them. This imbalance can easily be righted through conscious effort and incentivising (male and female) senior leaders to support and sponsor up and coming female talent. This can be further reinforced by incentivising leaders that show positive and effective sponsorship of their female talent (through recruitment and retention for example).

2. Family-friendly policies and practices

This one may seem obvious, but its amazing how many career structures, competency models and job expectations assume that an individual can always put work first, travel extensively (although thanks to Covid – less so now) and pull out all the stops to meet unreasonable deadlines when required. It's not that women can’t perform at the highest level, indeed all evidence is to the contrary, more that they need to know that their organisation will allow flexibility whilst they are juggling home and caring responsibilities. This means flexible working, routines that allow for parenting and caring duties and a culture that values outputs over inputs. Far too many organisations still have a culture of presenteeism (measured by hours in the office) as opposed to results and value delivered. This puts many female leaders at a disadvantage when their working hours need to fit around other commitments. Not that they are doing less hours (in fact they are often doing more), just that these hours are done at home, during early mornings, late evenings, fitted around school times, bedtimes and many other challenges.

3. Create a platform where women’s voices (& needs) can be heard effectively

Many organisations have realised the value of employee resource groups, where like-minded or similarly situated workers can share ideas, contribute to strategy and bring gaps to the attention of the Board and Executives. This is a very low cost and effective way to bridge the gap between what is current practice and what can be prioritised to meet the equity goals that have been identified. Helping women to share their experiences and feel heard is a very positive step in creating an inclusive culture.

4. Support and nurture your female talent

Most of the efforts for organisations is on representation goals and attracting female (& other diverse) talent, but this is only the beginning of the journey. What happens in many organisations when they have attracted their diverse talent, is that they fail to provide the support to help them thrive in an environment that may not be entirely friendly.

Whilst employee resource groups may help, for senior leaders this may not be practical. Women entering a traditionally male (or male dominated) culture can struggle to find their place and voice, which is why turnover can be high in the first two years. One very effective step is to provide female only leadership programs, offering a mixture of development, support and coaching. Such programs help female leaders get up to speed, develop strong networks and transform the culture whilst building their own resilience and strength. Programs like The Female Edge have been created to provide a six month support program (or 12 months for some organisations) that help to oil the wheels of change in a gentle and effective way. Organisations need to balance the attraction strategies for diverse talent with the retain strategies, or else their efforts will be in vain.

If you would like to know more about our female leaders programs in your organisation, email: or book a discovery call here.

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