Want More Women at the Top? It’s Time to Fix the Leaky Talent Pipeline

iStock_000017642294XSmallBy Michelle Hendelman, Editor-in-Chief

Previous research has identified that women do not get as many career-changing jobs as their male colleagues. This imbalance is one of the main reasons why the talent pipeline in many organizations is not as diverse as it should be. The question persists in the gender equality arena: why aren’t there more women in leadership positions? Yet, there is evidence that managers and key decision makers are not giving equal access to women when it comes to opportunities that can positively impact a career trajectory.

This begs the question: is the talent pipeline being managed properly with respect to gender diversity initiatives and leadership development strategies in a firm? Catalyst reports that between 2009 and 2012, the percentage of Fortune 500 female executive officers has remained at a near standstill, increasing slightly from 13.5 percent in 2009 to 14.3% in 2012. What factors are contributing to the stagnancy of women’s career advancement in traditionally male-dominated industries such as finance, technology, and professional services?

In order to get to the bottom of why talented women are not being ushered through the talent pipeline at the same rate as their male colleagues, let’s take a look at some key factors creating roadblocks in corporate gender diversity at the most senior levels of management.

Work Environment

Across many industries, studies suggest that women continue to face disadvantages at work. For example, when researchers at Stanford looked at the work structure in a scientific lab, they observed that certain factors of the work structure actually interfere with women’s advancement, rather than promote it.

In the article, “New ways of working, Same old gender inequality: How recent work transformations can undermine women at work,” Stanford’s Lindsay Trimble writes, “The researchers discovered that some new work structures are in fact undermining women’s career advancement. Their study of female geoscientists shows that three work transformations in particular—the implementation of teams, career maps, and the increased importance of networking for career development—disproportionately disadvantage women.”

Work environments in male-dominated industries may create an unconscious bias among senior level males who also have a stake in making sure the talent pipeline is always moving in the right direction.

Role Models

Our own research on women in technology shed some light on the importance of female role models for keeping young female talent engaged and motivated. In a recent article about this research, The Glass Hammer reported that, “Another key indicator of C-suite ambition was having a role model. In fact, the vast majority of our respondents (79.9 percent) said they had a role model. Meanwhile, respondents who didn’t have a role model were significantly more likely to say they had no C-suite aspirations than those who did have one.”

While this research study focused only on the technology industry, the same logic can be applied to other male-dominated industries where top level female leaders are few and far between.

Seeking out role models is a key factor in the development of junior level female executives, but what is even more critical in making sure gender diversity is a central component to the talent pipeline is making sure that both senior men and women are acting as sponsors and mentors to the diverse high potentials in their organization.

Sponsorship and Mentorship

These have become big buzzwords in the conversation about the gender gap in the workplace, but perhaps the full scope of the importance of sponsorship and mentorship at work is yet to be discovered. There is no question that both male and female employees benefit from having sponsors and mentors at work, but as a 2010 Harvard Business Review study suggests, talented young males are generally gaining more from these professional relationships because their advocates tend to have more clout within the firm.

How can young female executives take full advantage of sponsorship and mentorship opportunities to promote their career advancement? Mid-level female executives will naturally gravitate toward senior level female executives, but when there are not enough women in leadership roles, senior men need to step up and start advocating on behalf of the up and coming female talent in their firm.

These three factors are just a few of the issues creating a divide between the growing female talent pool and the number of women in executive level positions. However, work environment, role models, and sponsorship are fundamental to women’s career advancement and need to be addressed at all levels of an organization.