15th January 2020

Why Are There So Few Women Executive Leaders and How to Have More

Women comprise about 47% of the U.S. workforce, yet they make up barely a quarter of all senior executives at large U.S. public companies.

Why? What I hear in my coaching and consulting practice with women across industries are stories of gender bias, inflexible organizations, toxic cultures, male and female socialization norms and the negative impact of taking time off to have and care for children.

So, what can be done to address the executive gender gap?


Address The “Broken Rung”

To change the numbers, companies need to focus on the real problem. The biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline. It is at the first step up from individual contributor to manager.

McKinsey senior partner Alexis Krivkovich concurs: “There’s been so much focus on the glass ceiling.  But the worst spot is in the very beginning.”

For every 100 men promoted from entry to management level, only 72 women are.  This is the “broken rung” that results in some 62% of manager roles being occupied by men and just 38% being filled by women.  

This squeeze only increases the higher up the corporate hierarchy you go as there are simply less and less women to promote.

Fixing this “broken rung” is essential to achieve gender parity.

Firms can address the “broken rung” in a variety of ways, including:

  • Set targets for female representation in first-level management roles;
  • Unconscious bias training;
  • Redefine the path to leadership;
  • Establish mentorship programs;
  • Provide accommodations for work and family balance.

According to a recent McKinsey study, if women are promoted to first-level manager at the same rate men are, over 1 million women will become corporate managers over the next five years[1].


Identify and Leverage Work Style Strengths

Too often, the women I coach struggle to successfully make the move from individual contributor to leader. Why? Because they don’t know, nor strategically leverage their work flow strengths.

That key first transition from entry level to manager is more likely if women identify their work style, or what I call Productivity Style, strengths.  And then demonstrate how these strengths make them unique, impactful and valuable to the organization. 

For example, imagine your Productivity Style is a Visualizer, someone who sees the big picture and can synthesize big innovative thinking. What a strength this is! Who wouldn’t want your novel ideas expressed in the brainstorming meeting? 

However, if you don’t know that these are your strengths, and you are instead miserably tasked with analyzing data (something a Prioritizer would likely love!) then your unique gifts risk being wasted and unnoticed.  The leaders within your organization will never see you perform at your best.  This can lead to a cycle where you feel unappreciated and undervalued, neither of which encourage career advancement. 

The self-knowledge gained through understanding your individual Productivity Style not only builds confidence, but also is the grist with which you can advocate for yourself and your career.

The young new hire who happens to be a Planner can express her preference for organization and sequential work performance over more informal brainstorming and collaboration enjoyed by an Arranger.  Her manager, knowing this, can leverage her strengths and appreciate how her projects always come in under deadline!

Let’s flip the script: this tool is also crucial for decision makers interested in promoting women to executive leadership positions.  If women are supported and promoted based on their Productivity Style strengths, these strengths then advance the mission of the organization.

Strengths are magnifiers of performance.  Indeed, there’s evidence that firms who promote women to the top tend to be more profitable.  According to Joe Carella, the assistant dean at the University of Arizona, “We did our own analysis of Fortune 500 companies, and we found that companies that have women in top management roles experience what we call ‘innovation intensity’ and produce more patents — by an average of 20 percent more than teams with male leaders.”


Ready to explore how we can help you or your organization address the gender gap?

Let’s talk.  Schedule a 20-minute call to discuss your needs and determine whether a coaching or consulting program is right for you or your company.