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Women in leadership: what’s holding them back, and what can you do about it?

Caroline Brant
Mar 9, 2020

It’s no secret that gender-diverse organizations are outperforming homogeneous ones with a staggering stride.

McKinsey’s 2018 report on diversity in the workforce states that “companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 21% more likely to outperform on profitability.” Given this fact, it stands to reason that we’d see more women in leadership roles, right? Unfortunately, the reality is that today, women are stalled from obtaining executive roles, and it can’t be blamed on attrition. 


At the heart of gender underrepresentation are organizational failures to address key setbacks for women in the workforce. From recruitment to professional development, women regularly experience unequal investment in their abilities and potential, as well as social isolation and harassment. And the response from employers has been lackluster: Companies are creating HR and L&D strategies that focus on meeting bare-minimum requirements and providing generalized, procedural training that puts the onus on employees (e.g., self-led harassment training, instructions on how to file a report against a colleague, etc.).  

Obstacles to gender diversity

To develop a robust L&D strategy that can actually move the needle on gender parity, L&D professionals must think beyond traditional approaches and embrace diverse one-on-one training and mentorship for female employees — and make a business case for investing in these measures. So far, only 13% of companies that are aiming for gender parity are taking this critical step.

In our ebook, “Your Learning & Development Assumptions: Truth or Lie?” we exposed the myth that leadership training as it exists is helping women to advance. Here, let’s take a deeper dive into the top factors holding women back from the leadership roles throughout the employee lifecycle, and what your company can do to achieve gender diversity every step of the way. 

1. Uneven investment in female employees 

Global training company The Knowledge Academy reports that male employees were 17% more likely to be given training opportunities than their female counterparts. Training for men also tends to be of higher quality and more curated to build the skills needed to be an effective leader. 

With women facing different obstacles than men in the workplace, McKinsey reports that not only should one-on-one mentorship be provided to women, but also that training courses focused on the following topics should be made available:

  • Building visibility and executive presence
  • Creating healthy work-life balance

For male counterparts in senior leadership, McKinsey encourages companies to train according to these questions:

  • “How can we counteract trends causing women to move away disproportionately from line roles and P&L responsibility?”
  • “How do senior, external, and lateral hires affect our pipeline? Are they diluting gender gains?”
  • “Which executive men and women are using — and publicly supporting — work-flexibility programs? If none have done so, which leaders would be the most effective work-flexibility champions?”
  • “Who is sponsoring and mentoring our senior high-potential women?”

2. Sexual harassment

Consider this: 98% of companies report having adequate learning programs in place to combat workplace sexual harassment, while 55% of women in senior leadership report experiencing harrassment, according to McKinsey. Furthermore, in the same survey, only 32% of all women employees reported feel that complaints are handled rapidly and effectively. So where are companies falling short?

Chief Learning Officer reports that companies are relying on educating rather than training employees on sexual harassment. The key is that education is about knowledge, whereas training is about behavior. Most companies have invested in educating about sexual harassment — providing information about what is and isn’t legal, and how to report violations — but are falling short on actually training employees through real-life scenarios. 

However, Chief Learning Officer calls on companies to start delivering content that is relevant to employees’ everyday environments. For example:

  • Unconscious bias: What is it and how to recognize it in your daily work life
  • How to speak up when someone unintentionally steps over the line
  • How to intervene when you see harassment, inappropriate behavior, or suspicious behavior

3. Social isolation in the workplace

Women in leadership positions often find themselves isolated. McKinsey reports that 1 in 5 women say they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work. That number doubles for senior-level women and women in technical roles. The recommendations to tackle this issue of isolation requires a cross-departmental effort — from HR to executive leadership. Some courses to consider to make your workforce more inclusive for women are:

  • How to avoid incorporating biases into business decisions and promotions
  • Sponsoring and mentoring high-potential women and minorities
  • Recognizing and eliminating microaggressions in the workplace

Moving forward by building leaders

To close the gender gap and create a gender-balanced workforce across all stages of an employee’s career, companies need to move past bare-minimum and policy-focused education. Instead, organizations need to begin training and mentoring their leaders — men and women alike — with the support of learning content that is curated to the real-life needs and obstacles that are preventing women from moving ahead. 

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