Current State

Women continue to be severely underrepresented in leadership roles at most employers. Though 75% of organizations say women are included among their top internal succession candidates for CEO and C-Suite roles, only 17% of organizations have women CEOs, according to Brandon Hall Group’s study, What’s Changing for Women in the Workplace? That number is about the same as in 2015, when we first asked that question in our research. 

In addition, two-thirds of organizations have 20% or less of their C-Suite comprised of women and 55% have less than 20% women as senior leaders (VP level). There are far more women in manager/ supervisor roles — and then the percentages drop off a cliff.

More than 30% Women in Leader Roles – More than 40% Women in Leader Roles

Despite the gender equity issues in leadership, less than half of employers have programs designed specifically for developing women and helping them advance in their careers. 

Do You Have Programs Targeted Specifically to Developing Women? 


The predominant reason employers give for not having targeted programs for developing women — despite gender equity in leadership being a Top 3 talent priority — is that women are proportionally included in existing programs. 

Reasons for Not Offering Targeted Development Programs for Women

At the same time, only 39% of organizations believe their efforts to provide development opportunities for women are effective. 


The positive impact of women leaders on business is well-documented. One major study reported that organizations with gender equity in top leadership roles are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. 

In our study, employees with women in the CEO role were: 

48% more likely to see an increase in employee engagement.

2.8 times more likely to see an increase in retention of high-potential women.

43% more likely to see an increase in talent retention overall. 

Many employers are missing a great opportunity to improve business results with their largely ineffective approach to developing women leaders. 

Critical Questions

Why do so many organizations struggle to improve gender equity in leadership, especially in the higher levels of the organization? 

How can organizations improve in developing women and advancing them into higher-level leader roles? 

Brandon Hall Group POV

There is no easy solution for the problem of gender equity in leadership. In many organizations, it is a matter of culture. There is some evidence that unconscious — and conscious — bias comes into play, especially in industries traditionally dominated by male leaders with a top-down management philosophy. Our research shows that in many organizations, there is not a clear understanding of the impact leadership equity has on an organization because it is largely not measured. 

With the caveat that some issues around gender equity in leadership may be organization- or industry-specific, here are five strategies that can help organizations make progress: 

Use Assessments to Better Understand the Potential of Women. 

Six in 10 organizations responding to our research said assessments would help them understand the potential of women to move into new roles. 

Assessments lead to insights and help counter unconscious bias. One of the biggest problems with the identification of high-potential talent — in all demographic groups — is assigning too much importance to performance and experience, and not fully understanding employees’ capabilities, engagement level and career aspirations. 

Approaches to Improve Gender Equality, Equity and Inclusion 

Anonymize Applications for External Hires and Internal Promotions. 

Anonymization of applications for external hires has been used for several years to address unconscious bias in external hiring. Some companies are also beginning to do it for internal applications. We believe it should be a common practice. 

While talent evaluators usually have good intentions, unconscious bias does come into play and not knowing the gender, race and even education levels of candidates early in the evaluation process helps level the playing field as recruiters and hiring managers assess talent. It makes them focus on capabilities and experience — and assessment results if they are used early in the recruitment process. 

Win Active Support and Sponsorship from Executives. 

Change starts at the top. Many executives pay lip service to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts but it means little to employees unless those top leaders “walk the walk.” Less than 25% of organizations use executive sponsorship or executive mentoring to develop high-potential women or current women leaders looking to move into larger roles. Only about 40% of organizations have specific “owners” of targeted development efforts for women. When no one has accountability for an initiative, it tends to be less effective. 

Initiatives to Develop Women Leaders. 

Among organizations with targeted efforts to develop women leaders, about 60% have initiatives to develop front line, midlevel, senior leaders and high-potential individual contributors. 

But depending on the industry and culture of the organization, other efforts are needed, especially in disciplines where women are traditionally underrepresented, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of those are growth areas, so failure to develop women leaders creates a negative impact on gender equity.

Measure Key Indicators Related to Development of Women. 

52% of organizations do not specifically measure the effectiveness of development programs and services for women and their engagement and flight risk. It is hard to improve gender equity when you don’t know where the problems lie and which efforts are effective or ineffective. Among the metrics organizations should understand are: 

  • Percentage of women promoted internally from individual contributor to frontline leader roles 
  • Percentage of women promoted internally from mid-level leader roles 
  • Percentage of women promoted internally into senior and C-Suite roles 
  • Retention rate of women overall compared to men and other demographic categories 
  • Engagement scores of employees overall compared to engagement scores of women, high-potential women and current women leaders 

No more than one-third of organizations say they measure any of those areas. If more employers were armed with this kind of data, they could get a better idea of where there are gaps and areas of concern, then take strategic steps to improve.

Make the Work Environment as Flexible as Possible. 

Employers should understand that women in general — and women of color, in particular — have been adversely affected by COVID-19 much more than men. 

Women still shoulder a disproportionate share of childcare and homeschooling responsibilities and are more likely to respond to emergencies or other family situations that pull them away from work temporarily. 

Therefore, employers should create as much flexibility as possible for women to contribute to the organization. Working at home at least part-time and flexible hours are a big part of that, but strategies like job sharing — offered by only 25% of employers — can be helpful. Sharing jobs or cross-training people to step in when needed, can keep good employees working and contributing while handling situations outside of work. 


Organizations that fail to develop more senior women and other diverse leaders lack progress in ensuring leadership that reflects its employee and customer base, which will become increasingly diverse in the years ahead. 

Driving greater inclusion and helping leaders adapt to a more inclusive leadership style amounts to culture change, which must occur at all levels of an organization to be successful. The business benefits of having women in positions of influence and leadership are well-documented. 

The research also shows how the disruption of the pandemic impacted women and organizations’ plans as they transition to the evolving ‘new normal. Nearly 70% of organizations reported digital learning would increase or remain the same post-pandemic. 

Companies with more advanced strategies and learning technologies in place had a more seamless and successful transition to managing their employees remotely. These organizations also show greater overall business performance. 


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Claude Werder

Claude Werder oversees Brandon Hall Group's analyst team, new product development, corporate development, the HCM Excellence Conference 2015, publishing, and social media and marketing strategies for Brandon Hall Group. In that role, he manages Brandon Hall Group’s research priorities, Membership Program and Member Center, and Brandon Hall Group’s exclusive KnowledgeBases of research data and HCM solution providers, services and products.