The Heart of the Female Leadership Pipeline Problem

This past month I spoke with hundreds of HR leaders, diversity and inclusion leads, and leadership development experts around how to address the challenge of getting more women into senior leadership roles. Some organizations are just starting this journey, while others have been at it for years. All are confused with what to do next. All are frustrated with lack of progress, or with headway that isn’t continuing fast enough.

While the topic of gender diversity is hardly new, it has gained significant momentum, steamrolling into every publication and news feed, climaxing in the most public of forums in business, politics and academia. Reporting on statistics of female representation in C-Suite roles is as commonplace now as reports on quarterly business results. And any way you cut the data, the numbers are not good.

The positive side of this spotlight is that more and more organizations are paying attention to this issue. More companies understand that this isn’t just something ‘socially important’ to do, but rather a business imperative. And more organizations are getting serious about building their female leadership pipeline.

But are we targeting our investment, time and attention in the right place? What really is at the heart of this problem?

A lot of investment and media attention is placed at the top. How many female board members are there? Is the composition of C-Suite roles gender balanced? Are women represented at the executive table beyond the typical staff roles of HR, Marketing and Legal? These are important measures to track and ultimately make movement on. Increases in these metrics show progress and they create role models for future generations. But progress will not be possible if we don’t create a long-term sustainable pipeline of female leaders deeper in the organization.

At the heart of this problem is the gaping middle where the drop off in female representation begins. 

Here’s what’s happening in most organizations today. For the majority of sectors (barring those fields that are desperately under-represented by females), women are joining organizations roughly in the same numbers as men. Many are progressing to first line manager roles. It’s at the mid to senior level where the gap widens significantly. 

During a recent HR People & Strategy webcast, I conducted a poll asking over 350 attendees where the drop-off in their organization occurs. Nearly 70% confirmed that the middle and senior leadership levels are where the significant gap in female representation begins. This is an enormous pool of talent that has largely been ignored, yet it comprises your feeder pool to the executive ranks. This is where we need to turn our attention, our focus and our investment.

We have to start taking a long-term view of this challenge and get to the heart of the problem if we ever are to see results. What is your organization doing to tackle the systemic gap in the middle?