Barriers to Career Progression for Women Executives

Management Inequalities Persist Despite Progress on Boardroom Diversity. Major businesses are not doing enough to improve the career progression of talented women executives.

A study involving the Human Resources directors of more than 70 leading UK and international corporations identified continuing career barriers for women executives, including unconscious bias at senior management levels, a lack of active sponsorship and a loss of career momentum for women returning from maternity leave.

„What we have found is not so much a ´glass ceiling´ but a ´slippery ladder´ that leads to higher levels of female attrition at each stage of the management ranks“, said Michael Reyner, Partner at MWM and co-author of the report. „This leads to a lack of diversity and loss of talent which undermines efforts by leading companies to strengthen their management teams.“

The report called for businesses to follow a three-step programme of change comprising:

– Clear commitment by Chief Executives to address this inequality, including
setting defined targets and developing comprehensive programmes to drive progress
– Creating a ´supportive eco-system´ for women including targeted recruitment
plans, more flexible working practices, enhanced mentoring, better-managed maternity
programmes, and greater use of technology
– Ensuring change is embedded by tackling the underlying mindsets and behaviours
that create unconscious gender bias

Companies participating in the study included AstraZeneca, BP, Coca-Cola, National Grid, Rolls-Royce, SABMiller, Unilever and Vodafone. The report also drew on contributions from more than 20 women leaders in different industries, who warned of a competitive risk for businesses where few women pursued fast-track career paths.

Cynthia McCague, former director of HR at Coca-Cola, said: „The shortage of women on executive boards is a major cost to businesses both in respect of lost talent and diversity. This report highlights the scale of the problem facing companies and offers valuable practical solutions. It should serve as a reminder to the business community that more needs to be done in this area.“

The study revealed that progress in appointing more women non-executive board directors – for example in the UK, which has benefitted from the Davies recommendations on boardroom diversity – has not been matched in executive ranks. Research cited by MWM showed that women comprised just 10 per cent of executive committee membership in nine European countries, and 14 per cent in the US.

Although the proportion of women on executive committees has doubled in the past five years, according to the study, even the most successful companies have found that progress is below expectations and has been patchy both across geographies and across different functional areas.

The survey highlighted the twin problem of supply and demand in promoting women executives: a supply shortage caused by senior women opting to step off the career ladder; and a demand problem in which women seeking senior roles were unable to advance due to persistent internal barriers.

Supply issues include the challenges of balancing professional and personal demands, inflexible work practices, the lack of role models and more attractive alternatives. One head of human resources said: „women don´t look up and see people that they want to be“, whilst another said: „work doesn´t necessarily define women in the way it does men“. Demand issues included a lack of mentoring and sponsorship and unconscious bias in evaluation processes. One HR Director told researchers: „review processes tend to overvalue experience and under-value potential“.

To address the lack of progress, the report recommended action in a range of areas, including:

– Unambiguous top management commitment to change, including setting clear
future targets
– Targeted recruitment to improve gender diversity at senior levels
– Improved support networks to help women executives succeed
– Appointment of sponsors inside companies to champion key women executives
– Better re-engagement programmes for women returning from maternity leave
– More consistent availability of flexible working options
– Enhanced career development planning
– Redesigned and more objective evaluation processes
– Programmes to address the underlying cultural norms that create unconscious

The report concluded that improving the proportion of women in senior ranks of major corporations remains a critical challenge, and that systematic and sustained changes are needed to address high female attrition rates and the resulting loss of talent.

The report can be viewed here: