The career ladder is broken for aspiring women CEOs. Here’s what we can do to fix it

Most leaders I know are deeply committed to gender equality, not least because they know it’s better for business if they don’t waste the talents of half their people.

I don’t meet many sexists these days, thankfully. Most CEOs and chairs are fully committed to equal career opportunities. They recognise that their companies will be stronger as a result.

Unfortunately, this widespread belief in equality doesn’t always square with the outcomes. Statistically, the odds are stacked against women with ambitions to lead.

A typical graduate intake will be 50:50. The proportion of women making the executive committee is under half that. By the time you’re looking at CEOs – and by extension, chairs – it’s one in ten at best for the FTSE 100, and lower in mid-sized and smaller firms.

Businesses will ask for diverse candidate longlists and shortlists for these roles. But as a headhunter, the reality is that by the time you get to the C-suite, fewer women have had the mid and mid-senior career experience widely considered necessary for leadership.

Undoubtedly, the single biggest contributor to that experience gap is motherhood. Career breaks and busier family lives tend to impose a substantial penalty on progression for mothers but not for fathers, at a crucial time in their careers.

That’s not to downplay the challenges that non-mothers still face from covert or overt sexism, and from unconscious biases, which can compound across a career. But the reality is that a business could banish all those things and still have a major problem with finding enough female candidates for C-suite roles, if it doesn’t also tackle the motherhood penalty.

Doing so is not entirely in their gift. There are deeply ingrained gender norms around what’s expected of mothers and fathers. But here we’re going to focus on a few factors that businesses can control to improve mid-career prospects for women, and in so doing lay the foundations for more diverse and ultimately effective C-suite hires.


Step 1: Change your lens

If you can’t find enough suitable female candidates, change how and where you look for them. As executive search specialists, we always aim to be creative in our research for longlists, seeking out alternative experiences or evidence of potential that may have been overlooked.

The key is not to be too rigid in your expectations, requiring certain boxes to be ticked by every candidate, because very often the motherhood penalty has prevented that from happening. If you rule out anyone with a career gap or a strong preference for flexible working, don’t be surprised that you find fewer mothers and consequently fewer women at the interview stage.

Crucially this needs to happen for hires several levels below the C-suite, as well as for top executives.


Step 2: Work around career breaks

A business committed to equality also needs to address career progression throughout its own talent pipeline.

Firstly, encourage and coach women in the early stage of their careers to take on decision making responsibility. These experiences will be crucial for progression later on, and we already see signs that women are less likely to get these in their 20s, being relatively more heavily represented in softer functions like HR than general management .

Next, create structured opportunities to accelerate the careers of high potential women (or indeed men, if applicable) who have taken significant maternity and/or parental leave.

This is not positive discrimination in my mind. It’s recognising that a career shouldn’t be an elimination race, where if you haven’t achieved X or Y by the time you’re 30 or 35 or 40, then you’re forever barred from progressing further.

If you have someone who has clear senior leadership potential, you don’t want them languishing in middle management because they were out of the loop for a couple of years a decade ago. You simply want to help them get back up to speed so that they can pick up where they left off, and their potential isn’t needlessly wasted.

Lastly, think about what you require from people on the fast track to promotion. Are you forcing them to choose between long nights in the office or tucking in their children? Or are you having conversations about how you can support them to have both career ambition and a busy personal life?

Neither we nor you can fix gender inequality on our own. We can support you  in finding diverse candidates with the skills and experience to excel in the role, even when others overlook them – it just requires approaching the problem creatively. Will you do the same?

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