Why Companies Fail to Level the Playing Field for Women in Leadership (and What You Can Do About It)


Many companies say they want a diverse and inclusive senior leadership team, and for good reason. In their Diversity Matters report, consulting firm McKinsey points out that “companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”1

According to the Global Leadership Forecast 2014/2015, “Organizations in the top tier of financial performance have more women in leadership roles.”2Research by the Gallup organization found that “employees of female managers outscored employees of male managers on 11 of 12 engagement” criteria.3

However, in many corporate environments, what is said and what is done to boost women in leadership roles are not in sync. Results are limited, no meaningful change takes place and the benefits of having women in top spots are lost to them, despite their efforts.

The executives we talk to at top companies in the U.S. and Europe tell us about the effort, time and money they invest to provide programs for the women in their organizations, yet are failing to produce long-term results. That’s because many companies focus on introducing programs without taking into account existing culture and deeper systemic issues that can make a woman’s climb to the top significantly different from that of their male counterparts. You have to level the playing field before you can introduce new players.

Identifying the Disconnects

Leveling the playing field isn’t about giving special treatment; it’s about removing barriers, many of which are invisible to company leaders. Even worse, some barriers are created by the very programs instituted to support high potential women in the workplace. Here are four common ways companies make it more difficult for women to rise to leadership roles.

Fixing What’s Not Broken

They design programs focused on fixing women in their organization to make them fit the existing leadership template. Rather than leveraging natural talents of high potential women, they offer more training aimed at turning women into the same kind of leader the company currently has. This approach creates the illusion of working toward diversity, but does nothing to change the organizational paradigms and processes to support and include diverse talent.

Focusing on the Window Dressing

They launch volunteer-led, low-budget affinity groups or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that are not supported by leadership or linked to any strategic business outcomes. These in-name-only women’s programs can actually add to the cynicism and discontent of female talent when they’re executed poorly. Often, this kind of program springs from a culture where no one at the top really wants change. There are no champions or sponsors for the programming at an influential level.

Setting the Bar Too Low

They claim success and call it a day when one woman reaches the top leadership team, without a solid pipeline of future female leaders behind them. Consider this: if a company has one or two senior female leaders, it’s likely those women got there because they are the high-performing “top 2%.” They got to where they are because of their own skills, attributes, personality, desire and drive, and it probably had little to do with the company’s efforts. Some high potential women will succeed despite the odds against them.

Providing Unequal Access

They (unconsciously) promote men and women on different criteria, often rewarding men for potential and women for results. A Harvard Business Review article referred to it as “second generation” bias, defined as the “powerful but subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”4

Similarly, a 2015 McKinsey article highlighted multiple research studies showing how similar behaviors, negotiating for a better salary package for instance, were viewed differently depending on whether a man or a woman was doing the asking. Men were admired for asking for more, women were penalized for the same behavior.5 This puts qualified women behind similarly qualified men in your succession rankings.

Level the Playing Field, Get the Best Players

Forward-thinking companies have figured out that if they level the playing field for women, they’ll get the best players and the best results. These companies invest in leadership development and succession planning initiatives in a meaningful way that diversifies the talent pipeline and includes a range of perspectives around the decision-making table.

One example comes from an industry not traditionally known for its diversity. In the utility industry, companies are typically run by generations of similarly thinking leaders who fit a well-known template. These well-intentioned leaders often mentored the next generation of young men into leadership roles based on a natural affinity: similar backgrounds, similar interests and unconscious biases. However, a U.S.-based Midwestern utility company wanted to change that dynamic. They wanted to level the playing field particularly for the women in the industry and worked with Tiara International LLC so a more inclusive leadership team could emerge.

One component was a strategically implemented, yearlong, structured mentorship program for high potential women. The opt-in application aligns participants along areas of professional focus and organizational needs. Female mentees are matched with both male and female senior executives as mentors. The mentoring program works in tandem with other leadership development efforts at the company and leverages best practices for change management, leadership effectiveness and the Tiara Model for True LeadershipSM and preferential learning styles for female leaders. Integrating a robust and systemic solution they have achieved the following results:

  • 80 percent of the mentees have acquired more prominent responsibilities


  • 50 percent of the mentees have been promoted or assigned new roles with increased responsibilities

 Change is Possible, Success is Probable

Right now, in companies across the U.S. and Europe, there are high-potential women who have been working hard throughout their entire careers. They are clamoring for more opportunities and greater responsibilities. Behind them, are the next generation of leaders referred to as ‘Millennials’ (born between 1980 and 2000). This group will make up 50% of the workforce by 2020.6 A 2015 Catalyst poll found that 84% of Millennial women surveyed agreed that there are inherent biases in the workplace that hold women back.7 We can stop these results from occurring.

When companies get serious, make a commitment to an inclusive leadership culture and are willing to have visible change, here’s how they succeed:

  • They fix the organization’s culture, not the women. 

  • They tie the programs to strategic business outcomes to demonstrate effectiveness.

  • They have strong role models (male and female) supporting the initiatives.

  • They proactively seek inclusive actions in recruiting, sponsorship and talent management processes.

Companies can no longer say they are working on these issues without reporting visible results. The job of executive leaders is to create equal opportunities for the next generation of talented leaders, filling the company pipeline with diverse talent. Those who level the playing field and make access to the top ranks of the company accessible to all high-potential players will be better positioned to achieve strategic business goals, have greater employee engagement and retain top talent.


  1. Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton and Sara Prince, “Why Diversity Matters,” McKinsey & Company, January 2015, http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/organization/why_diversity_matters.

  1. Evan Sinar, Ph.D., Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., Amy Lui Abel, Ph.D., Stephanie Neal, M.A., Tacy Byham, Ph.D. and Stephanie Neal, M.A., “Ready-Now Leaders: Cultivating Women in Leadership to Meet Tomorrow’s Business Challenges,” DDI, 2015, http://www.ddiworld.com/resources/library/trend-research/global-leadership-forecast-2014-gender-report.pdf.

  1. Kimberly Fitch and Sangeeta Agrawal, “Why Women are Better Managers Than Men,” Gallup, October 16, 2014,

  1. Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely and Deborah M. Kolb, “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers,” Harvard Business Review, September 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers.

  1. Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer, “It’s good to be the Queen…but it’s easier being the King,” McKinsey & Company, October 2015, http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/leadership/Its_good_to_be_the_queen_but_its_easier_being_the_king?cid=mckwomen-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1510.

  1. “Millennials at work: Reshaping the Workplace,” PwC, 2011, https://www.pwc.com/m1/en/services/consulting/documents/millennials-at-work.pdf.

  1. “Revealing the Real Millennials: Workplace Gender Bias,” Catalyst, October 6, 2015, http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/revealing-real-millennials-workplace-gender-bias.