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Addressing the Critical Mid-Career Phase in Female Leadership Pipelines

Most business leaders acknowledge that a gender diverse leadership team bears many benefits, including higher returns for shareholders, better fiscal performance, and greater philanthropic efforts. Yet, many companies struggle to achieve the goal of consistently moving women into key leadership roles.

While there is no simple solution to this complex challenge, our research sheds light on where, and why, women may stall in their career journeys. Further, the research findings point to several impactful, data-driven strategies companies can implement to move more women to higher ranks.

The mid-career stall

Women’s participation in the U.S. workforce dwindles during the mid-career stage, from 46% at entry-level to a mere 29% by the time they reach Vice President status – a 17% decrease. Further research from McKinsey and finds women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and they are far less likely to be promoted into them – even though women are just as interested in being promoted as men, and they ask for promotions at comparable rates.

If not lack of desire, what, then, is causing this “leaky” pipeline of female leadership? Are women in middle management being overlooked? Or unprepared?

Key skills under-addressed

We have identified the top competencies associated with high performing executives based on thousands of benchmark data. Among them are three competencies in which female managers and directors score significantly lower when compared to male executives: demonstrates financial acumen, exudes executive presence, and manages risk.

On average, female managers and directors score in the below average range relative to executive norms and show a 10-15 percentile gap in their scores for demonstrating financial acumen and exuding executive presence.

When it comes to managing risk, female managers and directors score 7-13 percentile points less than executive women. It appears that for most organizations, efforts to develop these critical skills for middle-management women are falling short.

Solving the mid-career stall

Leadership development programs provide a much-needed foundation to amplify career learning. Working in concert with these coaching and training programs, employers must also offer high-potential women access to leadership and game-changing roles.

Initiative #1: Provide access to projects that matter.

Although women comprise nearly half of the US workforce, the Diversity Best Practices 2017 Inclusion Index found their participation in professional development is sorely lacking.

Women, particularly in their mid-career, need access to projects that will exercise the three key competencies required to advance, such as projects with large budget sizes, projects with greater C-suite, and projects involving higher levels of risk.

Initiative #2: Assess skill gaps of mid-career women; provide leadership development to improve competencies.

Best-in-class organizations use leadership and development assessments as a fundamental piece of the talent management process. They allow companies to create custom development plans based on an individual’s personal competency profile. In addition, a KPMG Women’s Leadership study found professional working women believe it is critical for companies to support a woman’s development in her twenties (80%) and career advancement in her thirties (61%). This research supports just how crucial it is to support women in advancing their careers and reaching the highest ranks through data-driven leadership development programs.

Initiative #3: Provide formal mentorship opportunities.

A recent DDI survey found 67% of women rate mentorship as highly important in career advancement. The guidance and support of mentors is one of the most powerful tools women have at their fingertips throughout any phase of their career.

Companies need to consider enacting formal mentoring programs rather than leaving women to find a mentor on their own. In fact, one Catalyst survey found that women who found a mentor through a formal program were 50% more likely to be promoted than those who found mentors on their own.

Time for meaningful actions

Organizations must begin to dig deeper to uncover the specific reasons why they aren’t fostering women leaders successfully. Today, there is hard evidence that more focus needs to be placed on women in their mid-career stages. With a powerful combination of assessments, development programs and access to meaningful projects, companies can achieve gender diversity at the highest levels. To learn more, try a free XBInsight Super Competency Assessment to help you identify and develop high-potential leadership talent.

About the author

Kathi Graham-Leviss

Kathi Graham-Leviss is the Founder and President of XBInsight, an innovative HR technology company that offers customized talent assessments and coaching. She is also the author of The Perfect Hire: A Tactical Guide to Hiring, Developing and Retaining Top Sales Talent, and High-Maintenance Employees: Why Your Best People Will Also Be Your Most Difficult and What You Can Do About It.

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