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October 1, 2015

The real reasons fewer women make it to the C-suite

Daily Briefing

Women tend to have a harder time getting promoted and are underrepresented at every level of the "corporate pipeline"—but not because motherhood makes them any less likely to want an executive position, according to a new study by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company.

Researchers examined data on 118 companies in the United States and surveyed nearly 30,000 employees to understand the challenges women face in the workplace. And troublingly, the report concludes that if current trends continue, it will take women more than a century to achieve gender parity in the C-suite.

Biomedical industry pays men thousands more than women, study says 

Seniority trends

While there are about as many women as men in entry-level positions, women become less well represented at every level of seniority, making up:

  • 37% of workers at the manager level;
  • 32% at the senior manager/director level;
  • 27% at the VP level;
  • 23% at the SVP level; and
  • 17% at the C-suite level.

And according to the study, the discrepancy is not because women are leaving their jobs at higher rates; In fact, SVP-level women were 20% less likely to leave than their male counterparts, and women in the C-suite were about 50% less likely to depart.

Instead, the data suggest women have more difficulty gaining promotions than men throughout their careers—despite about three-fourths of both men and women saying they want to be promoted. LeanIn and McKinsey say women face more difficulty advancing into senior levels for several reasons.

For instance, beginning at the VP level, women are less likely to hold so-called "line roles," which involve profit-and-loss responsibility—"the type of experience that leads more directly to the C-suite," the report says.

But women face a dilemma earlier in their careers, as women in such roles "have lower odds of reaching top spots than their peers in staff roles," according to the report.

More than half of top female execs played college sports

Leadership ambition

Women also report being less likely to desire a top executive job at every level of seniority—a gap that widens as women progress in their career. And contrary to conventional wisdom, most women didn't feel that becoming a parent hindered their professional ambitions; mothers were actually 15% more likely than women without children to say they wanted a top executive job.

Even still, women were more likely to cite stress/pressure as a top reason they don't want to be promoted, which suggests that "the path to leadership is disproportionately stressful for women," the report reads.

And the report finds several reasons why women may be more stressed. Senior-level women were less likely to report being satisfied with their careers, less likely to feeling feel their workplace was a meritocracy, and more likely to say their gender was a disadvantage in the workplace.

Women in power face higher risk for depression

Meeting the challenge

While 74% of companies said gender diversity was a top CEO priority, just 49% of men and 37% percent of women agreed. And 88% of men said they thought women had as many or more opportunities in the workplace as men, compared with 57% of women.  

Family-friendly policies, such as flexible work arrangements, career development programs, and paid family leave may be helpful—but are frequently underutilized. For instance, more than 90% of both men and women said they thought taking extended family leave would hurt their career.

The study authors suggested five key steps  to improving gender equality in the workplace, including tracking key metrics, investing time and money in gender diversity, and proactively identifying gender bias (Lublin/Waller, Wall Street Journal, 9/30; Women in the Workplace 2015 report).

My 'epiphany' about bias in health care: Hear from a 'top' woman in health care

The Daily Briefing sat down with the Advisory Board's Michele Molden to discuss what she's learned in her time as a top female leader and how organizations can facilitate the development of women leaders.


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