Research Says: Growing Women In Leadership Talent Pool Pays Off


Study: Unlocking The Full Potential Of Women (McKinsey 2011, Barsh, Yee)

Finding: The talent pipeline for women into senior management starts to diminish at the Director level, generating a shrinking talent pool for the C-Suite ranks.

InPower Insight: Companies need to manage their talent management pool from the bottom to the top to grow women into the top slots and reap the financial and productivity benefits that come along with women in leadership.


The good news: many companies have begun to make gender diversity a priority. Less good news: few companies have fully realized the goal.

In its previous studies McKinsey demonstrated that including women in leadership was highly consistent with excellent, and even outstanding, performance. When women and men share the top spots, there is more intelligence – and diversity of talent – to help solve problems and foster innovation. However, only 14% of women sit on executive committees and only 3% are CEOs of Fortune 500 firms.

Through an evaluation of 60 Fortune 500 companies, McKinsey researchers tracked the progress these firms have made and developed four measurements that were predictive of company success at promoting women into leadership:

  •  A starting position that reflects the talent. We set the bar at the Fortune 500 average share of women accounting for 53 percent (or more) of entry-level professionals or at women having the same odds of advancing to the manager level as men; 31 companies met or exceeded this cutoff.
  • Better odds of promotion. Based on figures from the top third of participants, we identified companies in which women’s chances for advancing from manager to director and then to vice president were at least 85 percent of men’s chances for doing so; 20 companies met or exceeded this metric.
  • More women at the top. Based on figures from the top third of participants, we set this metric as having at least 22 percent female representation on the executive committee; 19 companies met this bar.
  • Women in the line. Finally, again based on figures from the top third of participants, we looked for companies with at least 55 percent of women vice presidents and senior vice presidents in line positions; 20 companies made this cut.

Only 12 firms had fulfilled three of the four measures for gender diversity. None had realized all four.

Two “archetypes of talent pipelines emerged”. In “fat” funnel companies, a very high number of women began at entry- level  and continued to move an impressive number of women into senior roles. At “steady” pipeline companies, a smaller number of women began but most were retained as they went higher up. Interestingly enough, 82% of women did not aspire to the C- suite (compared to 64% of men).

Measuring the development of the talent pipeline, it appears that women begin to opt out of the upward crawl fairly early, at the director level, due to four primary factors:

  • Structural obstacles
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Institutional mindsets
  • Individual mindsets
Those who stay in demonstrate great resilience, work ethic, results-orientation, persistence and leadership.
The study provides good advice to companies hoping to grow their talent pool of female leaders, including hands-on leadership, pervasive sponsorship and strong accountability supported by data.

Career Coaching Tip: If you’re an ambitious woman, take a good look at your options and choose wisely your path, based on what will make you personally most happy and fulfilled (if you’re unfulfilled, you’ll never have the energy to “make it” no matter what path you choose). Know that the path up and out are both available to you and get smart on both before you begin working the internal mechanics of advancement or decide to jump ship or stay put. If you decide to stay in, don’t think you’re playing a game, know you’re doing what it takes to lead and be a leader. Know yourself. Know your biases, strengths and weaknesses and work to play on your strengths and balance you’re weakness. Learn to ask for what you want and need, without apology or embarrassment. Look for sponsors to help you and go for the top ranks. Work in a company that gets it be vocal about ways they can help you even more than they are. Show them this research and ask them to plot their own female leader development pipeline so you can see what kind of reality you’re really living in. Bring other women along with you. Dont’ stop. Go.

Keywords: Women in leadership, work ethic, mckinsey, statistics

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