The Price of the Disappearing Female Leader

woman on a bench alone, representing a female leader

Today women gradually disappear on the way up to the most senior executive levels. In fact, it’s so commonplace that it’s almost become an accepted reality.

Consider if we had similar results in other circumstances:

  • What if 81% of the engineering graduates, and over half of the recruits, at the design firm were gone by the VP level?
  • What if only 20% of left handers made it to the major leagues in baseball?
  • What if a political party recruited and developed 100 future candidates and a few years later only 20 remained to run for office?

We’d conclude that something had gone very wrong and set about fixing it. The problem is both in the result and the implications for remaining team as a result.

Yet, these very scenarios are comparable to what happens with women in business today.  In a recent study, McKinsey found that women land 53% of entry-level jobs and make it to “the belly of the pipeline” in large numbers. But then female presence falls off a cliff, to 35% at the director level, 24% among senior vice presidents and 19% in the C-suite.

It’s a leadership void in perspective, leadership, and insight that affects business results, customers and the ability to grow the best talent.

4 key gaps created by the missing women leaders


In 2010, The Economist reported that Women account for up to 80% of global purchasing decisions and according to the World Bank, women will control a GDP that is bigger than that of India and China combined by 2014. Women dominate buying decisions, yet are underrepresented in company leadership – many with a stated purpose of serving the customer.

Increasingly, organizations want an even more connected, ongoing relationship with their customers. There is a significant difference between a helpful market data analysis and a more holistic customer perspective residing within your leadership team.

It’s not effective to run a global company with the entire leadership from the U.S. Likewise, it’s unlikely that a company targeted to the Hispanic market would be led by an executive team of white males. The senior leadership takes many talents and capabilities, but also must include those they want to reach.

Future talent

The lack of female leadership today perpetuates the lack of female leadership tomorrow.  When I began my career, I looked up for senior women that seemed like me. I looked for those who wanted what I wanted – an overall life that included a very successful career.  At that time, they were hard to find.

Today, new graduates still look for senior leaders who seem like them – it may be gender, ethnicity, like values or lifestyle. What they see matters more than what you say. If organizations don’t begin increasing female senior talent now, it will ensure the delay of any fundamental change. Consequently, the picture never changes and the talent gap grows.

The lack of female leadership today perpetuates the lack of female leadership tomorrow.

What they see matters more than what you say. If organizations don’t begin increasing female senior talent now, it will ensure the delay of any fundamental change.


Because of the female leadership void, organizations will continue to miss insights that influence strategy, the customer relationship, employee engagement, collaboration and how work is done. It’s not that women collectively have a common view, but that half of the talent isn’t represented at the top. This missing but essential perspective affects everything.


The final implication is the lost investment in so much talent that will leave too soon. And, as Sheryl Sandberg said in Lean In, women start leaving in anticipation of a future choice. They opt out early because they know they’ll need to in the future. This cost is significant as women begin their departure once they reach the manager or director level. The bottom line impact of the direct and indirect costs of this reality will grow year after year as this early talent departure continues.

The disappearing female leader isn’t just a diversity issue; it’s a leadership issue for every organization planning for the future.

Photo credit: Flickr


  • Brenda Dominguez

    Mrs. Johnson,

    This is a very effective article that addresses some of the problems encountered by society when women do not escalate up in the corporate executive levels. As a female accounting student who will be entering the corporate environment quite soon, it is very interesting to read about how women are shaping the way in which companies have to act in order to remain competitive but also how women have failed to continue developing their leadership skills and reach higher corporate levels. Indisputably, women account for at least 50% percentage of the purchasing decisions in the U.S. For example, three years ago Sprint redesigned its advertising approach from a “tech industry jargon” to a more “lifestyle-focus story” in order to target women. Situations like this give women enough power to strengthen their voices and start taking leadership roles. Moreover, corporations had offered growing opportunities at a faster pace than in the past and take very seriously the place in which they rank on the list the Best Companies for Women. The threshold to reach the decision making positions cannot get better than how it is. Nonetheless, women have not taken advantage of these opportunities.

    I agree with your assertion that there is “a leadership void in perspective, leadership, and insight,” but it is clearer to me that the problem is not that women are less ambitious but that the cost of ambition is what stops women for pursuing top positions. Once women realize that the job requires a full-time commitment, most of them see that the price is too high and leave the race. Do you think most women would be able to balance the same lifestyle of a business man while having a successful personal life? Probably, it has become more realistic now than in the past because of the technological advances. In previous years, women had little resources to manage their homes and jobs effectively and maybe that helps to explain the “lack of female leadership” that you mention in Future Talent. Just as the present affects the future, the few women holding top executive positions now are the results of very few women who developed their leadership skills in the past. Finally, the low number of top corporate female leaders is never going to disappear if women keep running away from roles that require responsibility and commitment. It is evident that a sense of urgency is required as the percentages from year to year of women with an executive position have remained pretty much the same. Although different and risky, my suggestion to make women accept the challenge is to stop molding women into manly characteristics. After all, are men and women the same? Instead of eliminating the differences between men and women to reach same goals, ways to use the strengths of each gender and canalize them towards fruitful outcomes need to be developed. The first phase can be for women to stop “leaving in anticipation of a future choice” and to start building up the role of a female leader.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  • JF Sebastian

    This article was probably written by a female and thus answers it’s own question. If “20% of left-handers made it to the major leagues,” I’d be feeling pretty damn good for my lefty kid’s chances in life.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)