HR Topics  Leadership Tips  

Diversity in Leadership: Normalizing Female Leaders

Diversity in Leadership: Normalizing Female Leaders

Diversity in leadership still makes the news, as evidenced by “first woman” and “first person of color” headlines. In 2021, we witnessed the first female, first Black and first Asian vice president of the US.  And at the end of the year, Disney was in the news when Susan Arnold replaced CEO Bob Iger, making her the first woman in Disney’s 98-year history to chair the board. 

“First female” headlines indicate progress toward greater leadership diversity. While we applaud these women for their grit and ground-gaining actions, we hope women in leadership soon will be too commonplace to make news. 

Women Make Up 24% of C-Level Jobs

Women still make up about half the workforce. And more than half of today’s college students are women. But the ranks of corporate leadership are different. According to the McKinsey and Leanin.org’s  2021 Women in the Workplace study, women hold just 24% of C-level positions across corporate America. Women of color account for only 4% of these top-level roles. Progress has been slow. Back in 2017, the study found 21% of C-level leaders were female, with minorities making up 3% of the C-suite.

When it comes to the largest corporations, we find just 8% of women at the top. Fortune reported, “In 2021, the number of women running businesses on the Fortune 500 hit an all-time record: 41.” Another first: two Black women now run Fortune 500 businesses (Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA).

The Broken Rung for Women in Leadership

The McKinsey Leanin.org study explains why progress has stalled.  According to the study, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted. This disparity in first-level promotions lays a foundation for continued imbalance. That’s because the talent pipeline (or pool of candidates for the next promotion) is weighted toward men. And at each level, the trend continues. 

The study refers to this first promotion for women as “the broken rung” in the corporate ladder.  As women look to move up, 14% find the first rung of the ladder unattainable. And at every subsequent level, the pool of available female talent is smaller, which perpetuates lower representation of women at senior levels. Similar trends result in low representation for people of color.

Why Diversity in Leadership is Important

Movements like Paradigm for Parity are working to promote gender equality. Greater diversity brings about a better understanding of consumers. This, in turn, leads to better decision-making, not to mention the profit gains. A 2019 analysis from McKinsey found that companies with greater gender diversity on executive teams were 25 percent more likely to experience above-average profitability than their peers. This is up from 21 percent in 2017 and 15 percent in 2014.

So, when I see a “first woman” headline, I’m excited because it means we’re moving forward. However, I want to live in a world where organizations already have gender-diverse teams. I long for the day when females reach the highest levels of leadership, and it’s not front-page news. It’s just normal.

How Do We Make Women in Leadership the Norm?

Diversity in leadership starts at the top, with executive leadership dedicated to bringing gender diversity to the workplace. Today’s executives need to identify and eliminate discriminatory practices. Leaders need to clarify this change is not about promoting unworthy people. Rather, it’s about making sure ALL talent is considered.

Leadership diversity won’t just happen on its own. A vital aspect of successful transformation is structured alignment.  Diversity programs need to be aligned with formal talent management and succession planning strategies. It’s not enough to send females to training or to have an informal women’s groups. 

At IMPACT Group, our clients get results through our Women in Leadership programs. These programs provide women with coaches.  The program also involves HR and the women’s managers. Over time, we begin to see a culture change that empowers a company’s entire workforce, from executives to HR departments to hiring managers to female employees.

Diversity in Leadership Means Breaking Barriers

IMPACT Group helps females rise to leadership positions. We find that women who participate in our programs are more likely to stay and be promoted.  Our clients view gender equality as a business imperative, not a “women’s issue.” You want your organization to be successful. Having more women in leadership makes success statistically more likely.

Leaders, reflect on your own potential biases and how you manage females versus males. Do you have the same types of career or strategic conversations with both? For example, do you simply assume that women who are mothers of young children will not be motivated to take on more travel or responsibility, but do not assume the same to be true for fathers? If so, you may be holding women back from reaching their highest potential. After all, bigger jobs usually come with more compensation, providing parents with more resources to manage family responsibilities.

How to Open Doors for Women

It’s time for both men and women leaders to actively support women and minorities. Many women and minorities report they don’t have any contact with senior managers. 

Sponsorship improves diversity in leadership. Find a female or minority to sponsor. If you aren’t sure how to proactively sponsor someone, ask HR for advice. Women are often over-mentored, but under-sponsored. They need someone to go to bat for them. They need assurance that their name is brought up at critical times for promotions or stretch assignments.

Sponsoring Helps You Too

Sponsoring someone is also great for your career.  You’ll get a reputation as someone with a keen eye for talent. So, get to know up-and-coming leaders, especially females and minorities. Help make sure their names are on the table for future opportunities.

Doing this will make 2022 a brighter place for businesswomen. And eventually, we can look forward to the day when headlines that read, “The First Woman…” are a thing of the past.

How ready are you to address diversity in leadership and empower your high-potential women? Download our Analyze Gender Balance Workbook to assess the current state of your company and determine which areas need attention. Get your copy here!


Contribution by Lauren Herring

Lauren Herring is a speaker, author and CEO of IMPACT Group, a business she grew into a global leader in career and leadership development. Lauren’s latest book, Take Control of Your Job Search!, is the new “bible” for job seekers in 2020. A graduate of The University of Notre Dame and Washington University (aka the “Harvard of the Midwest”), her passions include job creation, women in leadership and supporting people reaching for more in their careers through personal development, international relocation assignments and hard work. You can find Lauren’s job search tips at laurenherring.net.

Continue reading more articles.