The CEO of an internationally renowned technology company was forced to make a groveling apology recently after he was widely criticized for advising women not to ask for a raise but, instead, to have “faith in the system”.

Having “faith in the system” has not helped women reach their full potential in the workplace. Women in the US are earning 57% of all bachelor’s degrees, 60% of all master’s degrees and 52% of all doctorate degrees, yet they account for only around 5% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies, just 4.6% of Fortune 1,000 CEO positions and 14.6% of executive officer positions.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that 862 million more women could be participating more fully in the global economy. As the Los Angeles Times bluntly put it, “Women, you’ll likely die before there’s gender parity among leaders.”

Yet the evidence is clear – when women lead, businesses do better. Data from the World Economic Forum suggest a strong correlation between those countries that are most successful at closing the gender gap and those that are the most economically competitive. Companies with a high percentage of women, particularly in board positions, fare better than their competitors. In fact, companies with the most female officers have 34% better financial returns.

Mara Swan






This makes a compelling business case for growing the pipeline of women in leadership, but companies’ pipelines are suffering leaks that mean women are being funneled out. What is going wrong?

My company, ManpowerGroup, has conducted extensive research on this issue. We surveyed over 20,000 employers in 42 countries and territories last year to understand perceived barriers to the advancement of women in the business world and what employers are doing about it. Three out of 10 employers told us that a lack of development opportunities is holding women back and only slightly fewer pointed to the lack of access to high-visibility roles as a key obstacle. Exactly half of employers said they do not have a strategy in place to encourage the advancement of women.

What companies are offering is not what women want

Programmes alone are not the answer. If organizations are serious about getting more women into leadership, they must perform a systematic, in-depth analysis of their culture and flow metrics. Only then will they be able to craft a one-size-fits-one approach that identifies organizational and individual solutions that will increase the number of women in leadership and in the pipeline. These solutions must be as unique as a corporate culture and the individuals who are a part of it.

For example, with 65% of women saying flexible working arrangements are important to them and only 28% of employers providing this option, employers need to address this disconnect. Ever-evolving technology means it is less complicated and cheaper than ever to give employees flexibility, and more weight needs to be given to results achieved, regardless of location, than time spent in the office. When women are frustrated by inflexible work models they may very well leave, taking their human potential out of the door with them and working for – or as – your competitor.

Similarly, research shows that 47% of women, compared to only 30% of employers, identify lack of professional development opportunities as the reason hindering their advancement; and 51% of women say they have no clear career path. Tackling this requires analysing career pathways to determine where they may necessitate unacceptable trade-offs for women – and then fixing them.

Unconscious bias also plays a part in preventing more women from moving into leadership roles. It is critical that businesses examine policies, language and processes that – often unintentionally – amount to gender bias. Take a close look at how people are perceived in the organization and be particularly sensitive to how people’s skills sets and contributions are valued.

Another significant problem is that women are not being assigned roles within companies that carry profit-and-loss responsibility. Without this experience, it becomes extremely difficult to reach the summit of an organization. It is a vicious cycle because there is no supply chain and not enough women leaders to mentor future successors.

Society, companies, educators and governments are still encouraging women to consider a narrow range of careers. We need to entice women into technology fields of career and study so that they are not left behind as the digitization of jobs continues apace. There needs to be a collaborative effort from all stakeholders, working together to act as social engineers on the issue of gender equality to change legacy mindsets and behaviours.

We are faced with a changing workplace where access to the right talent is the key differentiator, as many companies report that their inability to attract and retain a skilled workforce is their biggest barrier to success. It is essential that organizations unleash the human potential of all people, especially women, who, despite being 50% of the potential workforce, are still the largest untapped source of labour.

I cannot phrase it more simply than this: attracting, retaining and developing women leaders only matters if your business wants to win.

Author: Mara Swan is Executive Vice-President of Global Strategy and Talent at ManpowerGroup.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2014 is published today.

Image: A woman walks past a show window of a luxury cafe at Ginza shopping district in Tokyo April 25, 2014. REUTERS/Yuya Shino