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Lead Your Team Women in Business

To Keep Female Leaders, Learn What They Need to Succeed

To Keep Female Leaders, Learn What They Need to Succeed
Credit: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Women don't rise to the top of the corporate ladder as much as men because employers aren't doing enough to keep their ambitions alive, new research suggests.

The study from the consulting firm Women's Success Coaching finds that women start out their careers extremely ambitious, but employers damage that drive to succeed by not creating enough programs that have an impact on their advancement. The result is a decline in that ambition by the midpoint in women's careers.

Of the women surveyed, 67 percent admitted that there was a time in their career when they were more ambitious than they currently are. Specifically, 31 percent said they were most ambitious between the 5th and 10th year of their careers, compared with 18 percent who said their ambition was at its highest following their first decade of working. [See Related Story: Take Charge: How Women Can Raise Their Leadership Stock]

The study's authors said the ambition decreases, not because women want to stay home or not work anymore, but because of a lack of effective support over the span of their careers.

"Women suffer from a lack of mentors, supportive managers who recognize and reward their achievements, as well as female role models," the study's authors wrote. "While numerous role models for success exist for men, there are few role models at the top showcasing women who have been successful especially in male-dominated industries."

The study points to research from the Center for Work Life Policy that discovered that 89 percent of women said they do not have a sponsor to move them forward in their careers, with 68 percent saying they lacked mentors.

Men, however, don't face those same challenges.

"Many men's careers are shaped through informal mentoring experiences where over a drink or a round of golf, men share otherwise inaccessible political information that closes others out of the loop," the study's authors wrote. "By the numbers, high-achieving women do not have the same mentorship opportunities available."

Women also point to workplace biases, corporate culture, few advancement opportunities and lack of support from other women as reasons for their diminished ambition. Overall, 51 percent said of the women surveyed said it's these workplace issues that weakened their drive to succeed, compared with just 18 percent who said family issues, such as raising children and not having a supportive spouse, were the reasons for their waning ambition.

The researchers believe companies are losing future female leaders because they don't understand what these women want and need to be successful.

"In order for companies to move their gender diversity initiatives forward, they must let go of assumptions about what ambitious women want and need and identify how they can support the women in their work environment," Bonnie Marcus, one of the study's authors and president of Women's Success Coaching, said in a statement.

"Future leaders who have the ambition and skills to succeed are sitting right there and because companies fail to understand what these high-potential women need to sustain and nurture their ambition, they are losing top talent every day," Marcus said.

Research shows that businesses are best served by increasing the number of women in charge. A study earlier this year from Ernst & Young showed an increase in the share of women in management positions overall is associated with a 15 percent rise in profitability.

With a leadership shortage expected to peak in the year 2025, the study's authors believe that instead of trying to attract and retain new female talent, they should focus on leveraging the women leaders in their existing pipelines.

Based on their findings, Marcus and co-author Lisa Mainiero, a professor of leadership and management at Fairfield University, suggest five steps organizations can take to better develop female leaders:

  1. Have strong support for gender diversity from the top of the organization.
  2. Create a custom assessment of what high-potential women want and need for career support.
  3. Develop early career pathing before women have children in their 30s/early 40s to build leadership experience on the line.
  4. Create Nonlinear career paths where women can ramp on and off to facilitate family issues.
  5. Accept that a "work until you drop" attitude is not sustainable for women or men.

Before taking these steps, however, employers must first acknowledge that women do enter the workforce with enthusiasm, optimism and ambition. The study's authors said women are well prepared, well educated, and believe they can achieve their career aspirations, no matter how lofty. It's the lack of support they receive that leads to a waning of their corporate leadership aspirations.

"They are the lost leaders in the pipeline," the study's authors wrote. "This is a loss, not only for ambitious women who want to apply their knowledge and realize their full potential, but for organizations for whom the leaky pipeline is affecting their current and future performance."

The study was based on surveys of high-achieving women over age 22. 

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.