24th September 2014


The 2013 International Business Report put the average number of women in senior management positions globally at 24 percent. Though this anomaly has been in focus for some time, change is happening at a very slow rate. There has been only a 5% increase in the number of women in top levels of management in the last nine years. This, despite data that companies with greater gender diversity at the management levels score higher on organizational performance, growth and innovation, customer orientation and internal processes. (The Business Case for Gender Balance: Wichert, 2014).

Obstacles to more women on top are both social and organizational. It falls on managers and business heads to become principal drivers of change within organizations and spearhead shifts that foster gender diversity in boardrooms.

Having worked with many organizations to improve gender diversity I believe CEOs and top level leaders must first study and understand the issue and then make structural and cultural changes in their organizations to ensure more women move to decision-making positions. This is even corroborated by recent research of the IBM Smarter Workforce Institute.

Know the issue

To begin with, business leaders must have a clear understanding of the problem, the context in which it thrives and its consequences.

There are three areas that must be clearly understood by the top teams to formulate an effective gender diversity policy

  1. Career progression
  2. Retention
  3. Work-life balance

Newer data is showing that boosting retention remains a critical challenge but it is does not guarantee career progression for women. Understanding the dynamic of career progression is the key to a leading cultural shift in organizations to speed up long overdue changes.

Female career progression

More and more women are following the same career paths as men. Yet they are experiencing slower career progression rates than their male counterparts.

IBM Smarter Workforce Career Progression Survey 2013 found women have significantly lower satisfaction with their career progression than men. 42% reported not getting a promotion in the last five years compared to 34% men who reported the same. Only about 26% of them had 2 or more promotions versus 32% in men for the same time period. Data shows these differences exist at all stages of career.

Three critical factors result in women and men having different career progression experiences on their way to the top:

  1. Critical job assignment
  2. Networking
  3. Seeking risky and career enhancing opportunities

Critical job assignments or CJAs are the most important factor in driving promotions for both men and women. These jobs include international assignments, reviving failing projects, or leading large-scale initiatives. All of them are high-visibility and high-impact.

Only 45% of women participating the survey reported working on CJAs compared to 53% men.

After CJAs, politically skilled networking, that is, being visible to decision makers impacts promotions for both genders. Only 58% women actively engage in networking compared to 62% of the men. Seeking out risky assignments is the third most important driver of women’s career progression.

The current promotion culture expects managers and leaders to be available 24*7 and move about geographically as and when required. This performance measure clashes head on with women’s double burden of work and domestic responsibilities. This male code for success works against women bagging critical assignments and promotions and progressing towards senior management positions.


The more women feel satisfied with their careers, including progression, the longer they stay with an organization. This is crucial for more women reaching the top. But the important thing to understand is that satisfaction with career progression and actual career progression in terms of promotions are two very different things. People might be satisfied with their career progression but that does not mean their careers are progressing. This has implications in crafting a successful gender diversity policy.

According to the survey, satisfaction with career progression is driven not so much by actual promotions, but by objective HR processes (27%), supervisor support (17%) and career planning (14%). These factors are very different from those that drive career progression as discussed earlier.

Many gender diversity policies are directed solely at retaining female talent, not at increasing promotion opportunities. Hence desired results elude organizations. Institutions and leaders must continue retention policies but must complement them with efforts at improving the CJA and promotion count for women employees.

Work-Life balance

Satisfaction with work-life balance is a big driver of retention. Women on the whole show less satisfaction with work-life balance than men and hence are more likely to leave, much before they reach the top.

Women quote highest satisfaction with work-life balance when

  1. they have access to flexible work practices
  2. their spouses/someone else shares childcare and housework duties

Women also pay a higher price for success.

Pepsico CEO Indira Nooyi, number 13th on Forbes’ Power Women’s list, stated recently at the Aspen Ideas festival that she constantly struggles with guilt and success comes with terrible tradeoffs.

She shares that her greatest regrets are the sacrifices her family made for her success. And she credits her success with supportive environment at the workplace, right from her personal assistant to the administration.

Women are acutely aware of obstacles to career progression. Unfortunately, most of them deal with it by lowering their ambitions and settling for less. When you believe you can’t make it, you won’t.

Change the culture

The debilitating effects of women’s experiences in the workforce call for changes at both organizational and individual levels.

The first step business leaders must take is to get rid of their own biases. Often leaders harbour gender biases and disregard inputs from female employees, treating women on board as merely representational. Understanding and consciously rooting out these attitudes in self and the workforce is paramount to leading a cultural shift towards gender parity.

Changing male-oriented models of success should become priority for every business head. Tweaking performance measure criteria to include women’s double burden and non linear career paths will ensure their careers do not stagnate. As high as 58% female graduates questioned by a Harvard study said their career paths were not linear. And only 5% of those returning to work after their break said they would go back to the same company. Company heads must consciously curb the culture of withholding promotions from women who take breaks. Offering non-linear career paths and career guidance to female employees is critical in retaining and boosting career progression for female talent.

Managers must offer flexible work hours, remote working, and part-time work to encourage work-life balance and boost loyalty to the organization.

Continuous monitoring of numbers of women employees at all levels, attrition rates compared to men, and ratio of women promoted to women eligible for promotion will help leaders gauge the degree of imbalance within their organizations.

A few top level companies in India have adopted the practice of replacing a woman employee with another woman to be able to maintain their gender ratio. (Times of India, August 28, 2014).

The most important step business leaders must take is to identify female talent and help them navigate the unique challenges they face. Training women to actively pitch for critical job assignments and network aggressively will ensure a level playing field for key projects and pave the way for female talent moving up the ladder.

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