LinkedIn study reveals C-suite barriers for women

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LinkedIn study reveals C-suite barriers for women

02/01/2017

A new report from Bain & Company and LinkedIn reveals the reasons why women have a more difficult path to advancement in the workplace.

"Charting the Course: Getting Women to the Top" details findings from a survey of more than 8,000 LinkedIn members -- female and male -- at U.S. companies across all career levels and major industries. 

The report reveals that while there is no particularly male or female route to the top, women face different external factors than men, both at work and at home, which create a more difficult path for advancement -- one that requires more energy and perseverance. The time and effort women expend in managing these differences can erode their aspiration and confidence to continue on the leadership track, prompting many to eventually reassess their career goals. However, frontline managers can be a positive and influential force for women, playing a pivotal role in developing them as leaders.

"Most women and men begin their careers aspiring to top leadership positions, but even at this early stage, women face a more challenging path. Men tend to see a clearer, well-trodden road ahead," said Julie Coffman, a Bain partner who leads the firm's gender parity research. "We've long suspected and now have the data to show that external factors such as unconscious bias mean that women just simply experience the workplace differently than men. It's increasingly clear why women often run out of steam on their way to the top, reinforcing the gender gap."

The gap in aspiration and confidence to reach senior leadership roles begins to widen at mid-career, the critical point when women often decide whether to pursue the leadership track or opt out. While aspiration and confidence are lowest for both men and women at this point, reflecting the natural sorting process that occurs as people advance in their careers, a distinct disparity persists. At mid-career, just 56 percent of women demonstrate an aspiration to a senior leadership position, versus 64 percent of men; and 57 percent of women show confidence they can get there, compared to 66 percent of men. Men's terrain is often smoother, so they don't need as much perseverance and they are more willing to take career risks.

The report identifies two of the most significant hurdles for women en route to the top. In the workplace, cultural norms and bias -- conscious and unconscious -- can create significant obstacles to advancement. Bias can directly impact one's career path, such as decisions around who is best suited to take on challenging projects. It can also take more subtle forms, such as comments on a performance evaluation that question a woman's career commitment, or the assignment of extra administrative tasks to women, in addition to their primary responsibilities.

At home, women also wrestle with more different dynamics than their male counterparts. Mid-career women are 61 percent more likely than mid-career men to have a spouse or partner who is pursuing an equally intense career. The Bain-LinkedIn research also shows that mid-career women with children are almost six times more likely to be the primary parent. Men confront work-life integration issues too, often with different context at home.

The good news is that successful women prove the obstacles to reaching the C-suite are not insurmountable. Bain conducted a previous survey on the gender divide, which singled out the "conference room" years as the formative period in which employees are building the skills and mindsets to become senior leaders. During those years, the study found, frontline managers play a critical role.

In their latest report, Bain and LinkedIn say frontline managers need to focus not only on building women's skills, but also on bolstering their aspiration and confidence:

Survey findings point to four specific steps frontline managers can take:

  • Tell great women on your team that they can advance to leadership roles in your firm, and back that up with action. Mid-career women are less likely to envision themselves as successful: according to the survey, women are 41 percent more likely to question whether they have the same opportunities for advancement as others of their level and experience. Frontline actions include investing in day-to-day coaching and championing (not just mentoring) high potential women.
  • Paint many models of success, even if they aren't yours. Show women that there is more than one route to the top, and make it clear that there is no single stereotype of success. Frontline actions include celebrating diverse leadership models and talking openly about your own path -- and those of other leaders -- including the highs and the lows.
  • Make everyday interactions the priority over periodic scheduled reviews. Increase women's day-to-day aspiration and confidence levels through open and regular feedback. Frontline actions include building aspiration every day through frequent "little moments" in the hallway or during a meeting.
  • Support the whole person -- not the worker. The different dynamics at work and at home mean that women often view the stress of work-life integration differently than their male peers, even if they both prioritize it. Frontline actions include having open and honest discussions about professional priorities and how they fit with one's personal priorities as well as following-up these conversations with action.