No Women in the C-Suite? Look at Initial Promotions

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By Genevieve Douglas

The national dialogue about women in leadership tends to focus on C-suite numbers, but the lack of women first-line managers may be where the problem begins.

Women fall behind early and keep losing ground with every step through their careers, Alexis Krivkovich, a partner at global consulting firm McKinsey & Co., told Bloomberg Law Oct. 13. Contrary to popular belief, the path doesn’t just narrow gradually for women at the upper echelons of an organization, “it’s a leaky pipe throughout,” Krivkovich said.

Women make up 47 percent of entry level hires but are 18 percent less likely to be promoted to manager than their male counterparts, according to research from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org.

First Cut Is the Deepest

“The first promotions are especially inequitable between women and men” at any given corporation, said Krivkovich, who was one of the authors of the 2017 Women in the Workplace study. Women hold only 21 percent of line roles, meaning the vast majority of women have little chance of reaching the C-suite, the researchers of the study found.

These early promotions, however, should be the easiest to equalize, Krivkovich said. There are many positions for first-tier managers at most companies; turnover is higher for these jobs than for other leadership levels; and the qualifications are easy to define and identify in diverse candidates, she said. Moreover, there isn’t as much complexity in terms of politics and networking that come into play at higher levels of an organization, Krivkovich added.

“The bar is set completely wrong” if people think one woman in the C-suite is progress, Lynn Tetrault, former executive vice president of human resources and corporate affairs at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 12. In fact, 63 percent of men who participated in the McKinsey research felt their company was “doing what it takes to improve gender diversity.” Only 47 percent of women surveyed agreed.

The most effective way to challenge this status quo is for senior leadership to emphasize goals to diversify leadership, Tetrault said. Most employees pay attention to CEOs and the goals they set for the organization, she added. “This sounds very simple but unless and until CEOs commit to this we aren’t going to make the progress that’s needed,” Tetrault said.

Sources of Pipeline Leaks

“When we look at women’s advancement up the corporate ladder, we see many organizations that have found good tools and strategies that break down barriers to entry. Women in big firms often enter in the same number as their male counterparts,” Victoria Budson, founder and executive director of the Women and Public Policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 13. “However, we see these numbers diminish as we look up the corporate ladder.”

One culprit for the leaky pipeline may be that women and men approach performance evaluations differently, Budson said. Women can be tougher on themselves than men, and women’s self-evaluations tend to underrate performance while men’s tend to overrate.

An outcome of this pattern in performance reviews can be that women are less likely to receive rankings commensurate with their performance, “which can hinder promotion,” she said. “Men are often promoted based on their potential to be successful in a new role and women are often only promoted after having experience that largely mirrors the content of that role.”

Additionally, when women and minorities look at leadership above them in the organization, particularly senior leadership, they may not see anyone like them, Budson said. If that’s the case, they’re less likely to stay because they foresee glass ceilings for themselves, Budson said.

Another difficulty in getting women to the C-suite can be how clients, projects, or opportunities are distributed at an organization, Budson said. In law firms, for example, work in the early years is distributed in an informal way where networks, rather than performance, broadly determine who gets good clients. This often leads to even better opportunities, Budson said.

How Can HR Fix It?

Getting more women into leadership--including women of various backgrounds--is a multiple-step process, Tetrault said. First and foremost, HR must make sure that unconscious bias training is a required part of training and development across all levels of an organization.

In addition, senior leadership must set goals for hiring and promoting women, and measure that progress to “hold people accountable,” she said. “It made an enormous difference at my organization that this business issue was addressed as seriously as any other issue,” she said. “What gets measured, gets done.”

Sustaining diverse leadership is also a major part of the challenge, requiring effective mentoring and sponsorship programs, Budson said. Mentorship enables employees to seek out resources and advice on career advancement, while sponsorship helps identify and promote high-potential employees.

Mentors and sponsors are especially important for creating opportunities for women from diverse backgrounds, Tetrault said. The executive team has to be held accountable for finding women of various national origin, ethnicity, and race. It’s also up to executives to support new hires and move them into challenging roles, where they become role models themselves and sponsor others, Tertrault said.

Krivkovich recommended that HR start by focusing on “key promotions.” Identifying these can vary by company, she said. But ensuring that there’s equity in certain promotions could make a huge difference, especially for women of color.

HR also needs to focus on the managers who are hiring, she added. Managers “need to be developed to be great leaders for diversity in an organization, and advocates for equality,” Krivkovich said. “At the management level we have a really critical need to upscale managers, women and men, to really be advocates of diversity and inclusion.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

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