Where are the Women Leaders? | 4 Areas Every Business Leader Should Focus On–Right Now

By Jennifer McCollum on October 23, 2019

Advancing Women Leaders

Here’s a topic I continue to grapple with, especially as a female CEO: Where are the women leaders?

Here are the facts: In the United States, women earn more than 57 percent of undergraduate degrees and 59 percent of all master’s degrees. They score higher than men in most leadership skills.

And yet: Only 4.9% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2% of S&P 500 CEOs are women. And the results in select industries are staggering:

  • In the legal profession, women are 45% of associates but only 22.7% of partners and 19% percent of equity partners.
  • In medicine, women represent 40% of all physicians and surgeons but only 16% of permanent medical school deans.
  • In media, women represent just 6.6% of individual directors of the highest-grossing films. 
  • In technology, only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector are held by women, and they make up only 7% of partners at the top 100 venture capital firms.

The talent, drive, knowledge is all there–so why aren’t women reaching the highest levels of leadership?

Linkage’s research shows that women leaders perform better, stay at their companies longer, and advance in their careers when organizations address four strategic dimensions; CultureTalent SystemsExecutive Action, and Leadership Development for Women.

Here are four critical questions to consider as you take on this important work to advance women leaders:

Do women feel valued and respected in my organization?

The best organizations recognize the tremendous opportunity in creating and sustaining a positive environment—one that maximizes the collective intelligence and goodwill of people.

A shift toward a positive and inclusive culture can be more influential than strategy or policy, as it sends and reinforces messages about what is expected of employeesand what is valued and celebrated in the organization. Most importantly, culture can attract, legitimize and advance women leaders, empowering them to make greater contributions to the business.

Do women in my organization have equal opportunities?

Effective organizations understand that opportunity–embedded in talent systems and processes–provides an avenue for women leaders to advance. Opportunities come in the form of benefits that encourage women to take on leadership roles, as well as human resource policies around critical decisions like hiring, performance management, promotion and compensation. Creating equity and removing bias in these decisions can open the floodgates for women to enter and advance in an organization.

Is my organization providing focused development for women?

Here’s a difficult point to understand: In most corporate environments, the model of effective leadership, the leadership “rules of the game” or expected behavior have, for generations, been defined by men. For women leaders to grow and advance, companies must differentially invest in their leadership development, above and beyond what is typical for all leaders.

Leadership development on key advancement competencies can come from formal programs and experiences; high-visibility stretch assignments; and/or feedback and coaching to build self-awareness.  Companies that get this right will see increases in key indicators like engagement, aspiration to lead, and belief in the future with the company.

Are my organization’s executives engaged in efforts to advance women?

For women leaders to fully engage and be inspired by a future vision that includes gender equality, they must look up and see executives in their organization not only talking about advancing women, but taking action. Executive action can include sponsorship initiatives to increase visibility of rising female talent, filling the organization’s pipeline with women, and creatively working to retain female talent. When executives take action, organizations demonstrate that they are committed to advancing women as a strategic priority.


Here’s the good news: Many leading organizations are fully committed to targeting these four dimensions and making real, positive gains for women in the workplace. I am continually inspired by the work our team at Linkage does to partner with these corporate champions to accelerate the development of women leaders. Next month, we will welcome 1,100+ women leaders to Phoenix, Arizona for the sold out 20th Annual Women in Leadership Institute™–the largest conference in Linkage’s 30-year history.

I am encouraged by the leading organizations who are making thoughtful and purposeful commitments to identify and advance women. Organizations like SynchronyKaiser PermanenteToyotaMedtronicOracleFedEx GroundAmerican FamilyThe Walt Disney Company, and others, have nominated cohorts of high-performing women to attend our Institute–and are fully committed to supporting the advancement of women across their ranks. And, I appreciate the critical work of key influencers like Melinda Gates, who recently pledged $1 billion to support gender equality; Serena Williams, who has invested in a fund specifically for start-ups established by diverse women; and Katie Couric, who just announced her digital video series #SeeHer Story which will feature short vignettes of female trailblazers and rulebreakers.

Organizations and initiatives like these help me believe that gender parity is possible, when we all make meaningful commitments and take action.

Where are the women leaders? As the first female CEO of Linkage, I hope I speak on behalf of all women leaders when I say: We’re right here.


Linkage’s 20th Annual Women in Leadership Institute will be hosted on November 11-14, 2019 in Phoenix, AZ and is presented by the following Premier Partners: American Family Insurance, Dentsply Sirona, FedEx Ground, Kaiser Permanente, Lenovo, McKesson, Medtronic, Parexel, TEKsystems, The Walt Disney Company, Toyota, Oracle, and US Bank, and the following Institute Partners: Constellation Brands, DOT, Lowe’s, LPL Financial, and Synchrony. Save the Date for 2020: November 9-12, 2020 in Dallas, TX.

Posted in Inclusive Leadership, Leadership Development, Women in Leadership Tagged with: , ,

About Jennifer McCollum

Jennifer McCollum is CEO of Linkage, where she oversees the strategic direction and global operations of the Burlington, MA-based company. She has 20 years of experience building and leading businesses in the leadership space, with a focus on leadership development, assessment and analytics. Her area of expertise includes bringing analytic rigor to critical talent decisions by linking leadership behavior to corporate performance outcomes.

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