Are You Getting Women in the Door, but Not on the Elevator?

I hear the question all the time: Why don’t we have more women in leadership positions?

In 1950, the labor force participation rate of women in the US was around 34%. Today, that rate is almost 47% and the US Department of Labor projects that by 2025, it will climb to 58.1% (compared with 68.8% for men). Clearly, women are getting in the door, but what happens once they are in the door?



What’s happening?

A quick look inside organizations struggling with the issue of developing women leaders can be instructive. One of my clients had a world-class diversity program and a stated objective to grow women into leadership roles. Looking at their data, we discovered that they were amazing at getting women in the door, but they were losing them within three to four years. Another client underwent a restructuring only to find they had eliminated a huge chunk of the women who had been in their succession pipeline. Or consider the client that had a lone outpost of female leadership – in a CHRO role – and no other women in operational or functional roles. In each case, my clients had transformational goals that would have benefited from diverse perspectives but they were either a) losing their female leaders or b) not growing enough of them.


In the case of the client with the world-class diversity program, the organization missed two important connections. First, the traditional career progression pathways that had worked well for a male-dominated workforce did not appeal to women. Second, the relatively young female talent they were bringing in the door could not progress quickly; a bulge of late-career employees holding middle management positions was delaying timely advancement. Since the company did not have a rotation program, talented women felt they were stagnating and left.

The client whose restructuring had swept so many women out of the leadership pipeline had not considered the wider impact of their reorganization plans. Companies that are truly committed to growing women into leadership roles take the time to count the cost of significant organizational changes. In addition to standard due diligence, they look at decisions through the lens of culture shifts they are trying to make – including diversity and inclusion.

And the client with that lone outpost of female leadership? The company struggles to attract talent, particularly women with STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and they are lagging their transformational plan. Women within the organization are being sent a message: you cannot attain your full potential here. The attrition rate of women in their engineering division is also telling, since it is primarily those age 40-45, a time when many women need flexible working arrangements because they are primary caretakers. When faced with choosing between their family and a company that appears to under-value their contributions, is it any surprise what decision many women are making?

How to get more women into leadership roles

The data is clear. Companies with women at the top perform better. In fact, companies with the most female officers have financial returns that are 34% better.[1] Most of the executives I talk to know this. They want those results and they want to grow the pipeline of women in leadership. What they struggle with is taking the actions to get the outcome they want.

Companies that are successful in moving more women into leadership roles:


  1. Determine the outcome they want and why they want it.
  2. Communicate their intention – internally and externally. Visit the blog of Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google for a great example!
  3. Examine policies, language, and processes that – often unintentionally – tell women they are not welcome at the top.
  4. Get inside of their data – compensation, career progression, demographics, for example – to identify potential roadblocks to women’s advancement.
  5. Analyze career pathways to determine where they may require unacceptable trade-offs for women … and fix them.
  6. Understand their talent at the individual level – their dreams, aspirations, and perspective.
  7. Anticipate risk of organizational shifts on the desired outcome.


It may seem like a challenging “to-do” list. But since when has a worthwhile outcome been anything but hard work?


Read More About Encouraging Women into Leadership Roles: 
Five Ways to Help Women Leaders Reach (for) the Stars
Are You Getting Women in the Door, but Not on the Elevator?
Women and Leadership: What is Your Culture Mirroring? 


[1] Weishul K. (2004). “The Bottom Line on Women at the Top.” Business-Week, January 25, 2004.