What It Takes to Get More Women in Leadership

June 19, 2018

What It Takes to Get More Women in Leadership

Back in 2015, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, famed physicist Stephen Hawking, said there was but one topic that remained a great mystery to him: women.


While meant to be a light, self-deprecating joke, the comment struck a nerve with women. Hawking was certainly not the first to joke that women are too “complicated” or “mysterious” to understand. Often told as a back-handed compliment, the old trope has commonly been used as an excuse as to why we’ve struggled to address key women’s issues, including the question of why we don’t have more women leaders.


Year after year, we see that the number of women in leadership—particularly at senior levels—has barely budged. Women currently make up approximately 6 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They fare only marginally better at lower levels of senior leadership, with 21 percent of senior vice presidents and 29 percent of vice presidents being women.


While these numbers have been slow to budge, it’s not for lack of effort. For decades, organizations have been saying they want more women in leadership. However, approaches have largely focused on things like raising awareness and instituting quotas. Building awareness is a good start, but does not go far enough to effect change. On the opposite end, quotas represent a worthy end goal, but neglect the changes that need to happen to meet those quotas. As a result, organizations may hire or promote women who aren’t ready for the position or amp up external hiring to ensure quotas are achieved (and associated bonuses rewarded to the executive team). This approach breeds resentment on the team and the women who gain the positions are set up for failure.


Thus, the “mystery” of getting more women into leadership lies in what needs to happen between raising awareness and meeting quotas. Recently, the Global Leadership Forecast 2018—published in partnership by DDI, The Conference Board, and EY—examined the practices that support more women in leadership. In our survey of more than 25,000 leaders and nearly 2,500 HR professionals around the world, we found that getting more women in leadership had very little to do with singling out women. Rather, what enabled women to thrive were practices that help everyone to thrive.


Some of the key practices include:

  • Talent review processes have a reputation for being fair and objective
  • Hiring and promotion decisions rely on data
  • Leaders practice key skills and get feedback from manager
  • Formal mentoring programs
  • High-quality development plans
  • Ongoing performance discussions


Broadly speaking, these practices can be broadly grouped into two categories. First, organizations need to remove bias from their hiring and promotion decisions to make the process fairer. Removing bias may include tactics like creating a more structured interview process and incorporating objective assessments into hiring and promotion decisions. Second, companies need to create an inclusive environment, which includes things like formal mentoring programs and training leaders to be more inclusive in their interactions.


The payoff is clear. Our study showed that the organizations that have at least 30 percent women overall and at least 20 percent women at the senior level were 1.4 times more likely to have sustained, profitable growth. Furthermore, these organizations had higher-quality leadership, were faster-growing and more agile, and were more likely to experiment and embrace failure in pursuit of different and innovative approaches.


While fair and inclusive practices are the strongest indicator of success for women leaders, HR leaders might also consider putting some differential focus on women to help them overcome a few unique barriers. For example, other research we conducted showed that there is a confidence gap between men and women and that men tend to be more impulsive. As a result, men may be more likely to volunteer for leadership, while women may hold back. Helping women recognize and address these unique barriers can help accelerate an organization’s women leaders even faster.


It’s time to put an end to the idea that getting more women into leadership is a mystery. The formula for success is simple:

1) Remove bias to create fairer processes,

2) develop inclusive behaviors, and

3) support women in developing the confidence to lead.


Of course, it’s a task much easier said than done, and the burden falls on HR to implement these new processes. But the results will be worth it, as women and men alike will thrive in a fairer and more diverse environment.

The Authors: 

Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D. is CEO of global leadership company DDI. She frequently speaks on a wide range of leadership topics, with a special passion for women in leadership. She is also co-author of the book, Your First Leadership Jobs: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.