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Closing the Gender Gap | How Organizations Can Engage, Advance and Retain Women Leaders

July 7, 2023 Deana LaFauci

What is the status of women’s advancement in the workplace? The latest data is in: It could now take another 131 years for the world to close the Gender Gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Index.

Women have been reentering the workforce at a slightly higher rate than men, with parity in labor-force participation increasing from 63 percent to 64 percent. And yet, parity is still at its “second-lowest point since the first edition of the index in 2006” and is “significantly below its 2009 peak of 69 percent.”

When we examine the report’s data on leadership, the numbers are stark: the Gender Gap Index finds that while women account for 41.9 percent of the workforce in 2023, “the share of women in senior leadership positions (director, VP or C-suite) is at just 32.2 percent, nearly 10 percentage points lower.” Among the C-suite, the representation of women falls to 25 percent on average, “which is just more than half of the representation of women in entry-level positions, at 46%.”

In evaluating the status of women in the workplace, it is important to focus on the very real differences by industry. The report finds that construction, financial services, and real estate represent some of the most challenging environments for women’s advancement, with a ratio of C-suite to entry-level representation of less than 50 percent.

In addition, women continue to remain underrepresented in the STEM workforce overall, where they make up almost half (49.3 percent) of total employment across non-STEM occupations, but just 29.2 percent of all STEM workers.

Using Reality to Inform Advancement and Engagement Initiatives

As organizations and their senior leaders evaluate their workforce and develop and strengthen their strategies to attract and retain the best talent in a competitive labor market, it is critical that they consider, and apply, the most recent findings on women in the workplace. By understanding this reality, organizational leaders can tailor their strategies to meet the current need—and ultimately set and exceed pivotal DEI and representation goals.

The barriers to advancement for women in the workplace are well documented, and the COVID-19 pandemic, including disruptions to child- and eldercare systems, has had a cascading negative impact on women and their ability to advance.

Most recently, a new report from Linkage, a SHRM Company, revealed that many organizations aren’t listening to or addressing these challenges fast enough, leaving women feeling dissatisfied with their companies.

The findings, collected from a survey of more than 3,000 women, showed that women who ascend to director or senior director are less likely than they were earlier in their career to recommend their employer as “a great place for women leaders to work.”

For organizations looking to immediately improve the culture and landscape for women leaders and increase engagement, it is important to evaluate the leading indicators which can predict a potential retention crisis. When organizations rely on lagging indicators, including overall retention and promotion rates, they are left scrambling as they react to an in-progress situation, instead of forecasting and addressing possible causes of the crisis head-on.

So, what can organizations do to help achieve gender parity in the workplace? Linkage research identifies four dimensions—Talent Systems, Focused Leadership Development for Women, Executive Action and Culture—that organizations can focus on to engage, develop and retain women leaders.

1. Consider How AI Will Impact Underrepresented Employee and Leader Groups in the Workforce

From intellectual property to disinformation, AI is the hot topic—and we continue to evaluate and analyze the potential impact on the workplace and the workforce. A recent assessment conducted by analytics firm Revelio Labs found that automation is more likely to replace women than men in the job market. As organizations weigh the benefits of deploying AI to serve their communities and power their insights and teams, it’s important to consider the downstream impacts upon traditionally underrepresented groups.

2. Embrace a Continued Emphasis on Salary Transparency and Fair Talent Systems

Highly effective women leaders are two times more likely to be found in organizations with transparent and fair people-related decision-making processes, according to research from Linkage. Organizations looking to attract and retain women leaders must focus on continued transparency when it comes to salary and their talent and promotion systems. Some states, including California and New York, now require employers to include salary ranges in job postings, and almost half of U.S. job listings now include salary information.

The impact of this shift has been transformational for organizations looking to attract talent in a competitive landscape. According to SHRM’s latest research, about 70 percent of organizations that list pay ranges in job advertisements said it has led to more people applying for their jobs, and 66 percent discovered that it has increased the quality of applicants.

And yet, even as organizations reap the benefits that come from a transparent and fair talent system, gender inequities continue to impact compensation. Women are less likely than men to negotiate salary when accepting a job, according to a survey of more than 5,500 U.S. workers conducted by Pew Research Center in February 2023. The same study also found that women are more likely to be turned down when they do negotiate.

Organizational leaders must empower women to approach negotiation differently to drive individual outcomes. The inability or unwillingness to negotiate can have a long-term impact on a woman leader’s engagement and retention at their organization. And, the ability to successfully negotiate goes beyond the individual impact, as women leaders are expected to negotiate on behalf of their teams, departments and their organization. Consider how your organization can empower women leaders to step into their authentic leadership to negotiate successfully in all facets of their professional lives.

3. Provide Focused Leadership Development to Women Leaders

As organizations strive to meaningfully engage women leaders in advancement opportunities and retain them in the long term, it is important to tailor leadership development programming to the unique experiences of women. A Linkage study finds that 67 percent of women who experience individual development say they are more likely to stay with their company.

Veronica (Roni) Jacknow, Senior Director, Office of Talent Development at Kaiser Permanente, is a champion for women’s advancement and a longtime partner of Linkage. The women’s leadership initiative at Kaiser Permanente, which relies on the Women in Leadership Institute™ to engage and develop women leaders, has achieved tremendous outcomes, including raising the number of women executives across the organization to 51.6 percent.

At a time when the data shows that women leaders are more likely to leave their organization, Kaiser Permanente’s unique focus on hands-on programming for women leaders has reversed the trend. “We’ve actually seen the opposite effect,” said Roni. “Women at Kaiser Permanente scored higher than men on intent to stay.”

4. Recognize the Impact Women Leaders Bring to the Workplaceand Start from a Place of Empowerment

Women leaders face hurdles to advancement as they traverse their leadership journey, and it is important for organizations to acknowledge those hurdles, as well as empower their women leaders on their journeys.

“The women who participate in our program have all the skills they need to continue to advance in their careers,” said Roni. “I think what our program does is shine a bright spotlight on their strengths, their superpowers, their unique talents, and it gives them permission to be their true authentic self and bring more of that to Kaiser Permanente and to the world each day.”


The Advancing Women Leaders™ Signature Solution from Linkage, a SHRM Company, is a practical framework that enables organizations to attract, retain, develop and advance women leaders at all levels. Discover how you can bring transformational impact to your organization.

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Women in Leadership Institute

NOV. 13–16, 2023 | Orlando, Florida, or Virtual
A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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