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The Price of the Disappearing Female Leader

Patti Johnson

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

Customers

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.

Insights

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.

Investment

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

 

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