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Cracking The C-Suite’s Glass Ceiling

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Want to create a successful, sustainable pipeline of female leaders? Show them a clear development path that is outcome-based, purpose-driven and sets sights on attainable goals.

There’s good news and bad news in the fight for gender equality in Corporate America.

The good news: according to a new Korn Ferry study, the percentage of female executives (identified as vice president and above) has risen considerably in the last five years, from 31 percent in 2016 to 39 percent in 2021.

The bad news: The Covid pandemic has been devastating for women on the rise to roles for the future, and there are still far fewer women executives than men in the C-Suite overall. This is particularly woeful in general management overall and in many key functions and industries, more specifically.

In many instances, setting out to simply hire more women executives won’t alleviate the gender gap at the top of organizations.

The key is developing and nurturing a sustainable pipeline of women beginning early in their careers, which will help them to eventually be ready to lead the senior-most ranks of the organization.

While much care and planning needs to be done, it is possible to identify star talent early. Our research shows that most of the traits needed to succeed in the C-Suite can be identified and nurtured in early-career, and rarely change dramatically from that point forward. This means you really can plan for the longer term with high odds of success, if the potential and the right experiences are linked early enough.

Effective organizations create an orchestrated approach to assessing and identifying high-potential talent (those with potential to perform at least two levels beyond their current role) with ongoing development opportunities, key job experiences and feedback, plus mandating accountability at several points across their journey.

A holistic approach to developing an effective talent pool will allow leaders to set up a “chessboard” of high-performing, high-potential women to help determine which roles/experiences will best help each woman to excel and advance.

One clearly established path to leadership is managing budgets and providing financial oversight. Yet, in terms of functional areas, women are underrepresented in most roles with profit-and-loss responsibility. Many are being placed on executive paths, but they aren’t on the avenues that regularly lead to the corner office as CEO. According to the data, women account for between 16 percent and 25 percent of the executive roles in general management, finance, and sales, all functions with profit-and-loss responsibility. However, when it comes to support roles such as marketing and HR, female executive representation is much higher at between 33 percent and 51 percent. While support roles are critical to an organization and to career advancement for many, women also need to be identified earlier and more often for P&L leadership roles.

The following graphic shows comparisons by function between the average percentage of women in executive leadership roles vs. all female employees. Notice the stark contrasts in some functions, such as finance, where 51 percent of employees are female, yet only 25 percent of executives are women. 

Beyond operating a P&L, other critical experiences – such as undertaking an enterprise-wide, high-risk, high-profile assignment or taking on regional leadership positions in different geographies – will help women expand their capabilities and allow for organizational leaders to help mentor them along the way. Another key to success is to move beyond mentoring these high-potential women to having a sponsor that will help them advance professionally and get recognized for their accomplishments as well as their potential.

Bottom line: The key to creating a successful, sustainable pipeline of female leaders who will want to stay in your organization is to show them a clear development path that is outcome-based, purpose-driven and sets sights on attainable goals. When women feel they are making a difference and are rewarded for their efforts, both the individuals and their organizations win. The time is now to ensure that this combination of purpose, skills and roles come together for the benefit of all.


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