Confronting the Leadership Gender Gap at the Root

Confronting the Leadership Gender Gap at the Root

March 08, 2021

This month we celebrate a year of great disruption and upheaval in our lives. For most working adults it has been a time of significant change, and the lines between our personal and professional time have been seriously blurred. Whether you're working from home or just feel like you're living to work, you may be employee, teacher, caretaker, or short-order cook at any moment of the day.

This month we also celebrate Women's History Month, the time when we recognize the accomplishments and contributions of women, and study the vital role women have played throughout history. In my life, I have been surrounded by strong women both at home and at work. I have witnessed many female role models of leadership that embrace the fierce, the caring, and everything in between. And I am grateful to each of them for the wonderful example and lessons they have given me.

But on this day of March when we also celebrate International Women's Day, if you were to look at the numbers you would realize that progress towards gender parity continues to be very slow. In fact, according to a Women in the Workplace 2020 report conducted by McKinsey & Company, for the sixth year in a row women are significantly under-represented in senior leadership positions, with barely one out of five sitting at the C-suite table. For women of color, those numbers drop even more to a disappointing 3%.

Yes, the trend was upward before COVID, but since then, more than one in four women are seriously contemplating the need to reduce their hours or even exit the workforce altogether in order to take on more responsibilities for their families. This can have a devastating effect, not just on women's progress in their careers, but to organizations as they lose all that talent, knowledge, and skill!

Addressing the Issue Upstream

Looking back at the potential root causes of the gender gap in leadership roles, one thing caught my attention. The simple fact that there are fewer women at the entry point to management. According to the same Women in the Workplace 2020 Report, "For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted."

So if we can increase the number of women at the first step up into leadership positions, will that increase the number of women in more senior roles as well? The correlation seems very plausible and it is definitely worth pursuing as a hypothesis and worthwhile endeavor.

We Can All Play a Part

As a talent management expert and executive coach, I have had the privilege of working with some amazing women - partnering in their efforts to reach their goals, facilitating their growth and development, and advocating for their serious consideration in leadership positions. Especially over the recent years, I have been proud of the efforts to support emerging female leaders in traditionally male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. These industries realize that women represent more than just the future, they are also a vital part of the present!

Perhaps the role I'm even more proud of though, is the role of Coach for young student athletes, especially for young women. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of female soccer players in their early developmental years. I have cherished the work that we have done together to develop their leadership and interpersonal skills, their ability to create a vision of what they want, and the confidence to go after it. I have watched them learn how to self-advocate and achieve success - not because someone gave it to them - but through their own efforts and desire. My girls have learned over the years to play as hard as my boys because I have treated them all consistently, as athletes. They have learned how to win, because I treated them as champions before they won their first medal. And they rose to the occasion.

Let's all remember that we should celebrate women not just on a particular day or month, but every day. If we encourage our girls to embrace their leadership instincts and we cultivate their skills and passions, they will become the (female) leaders of tomorrow. The leaders our world so desperately needs.