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Women Are Often Ignored As a Choice for CEO, Finds Study

More than half of organizations didn’t assess a single female candidate when looking for their next CEO, according to a new study by global leadership consulting firm DDI.

While only one woman was in the CEO candidate pool, she was never selected for the role, the study said. Furthermore, female candidates comprised only 25% of executive candidates and 19% of C-level candidates.

The findings come from DDI’s research titled: Executive Leadership Outlook 2020. The study collected data from more than 55,000 executive assessments, including 1,100 CEO candidates over a decade.

“The lack of diversity revealed in the Executive Leadership Outlook 2020 presents missed opportunities to identify and develop talent from new backgrounds and areas,” said Stephanie Neal, director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research.

But are male CEOs ready to lead?

The bigger irony is that despite the diversity and inclusion shortcomings, the study revealed executives and C-level candidates (and we assume they are the men folks) are often unprepared to step into higher positions, lacking development in critical capabilities.

The study highlighted, most C-level and CEO candidates are best equipped for present challenges but are less prepared for strategic challenges, such as building and entering new markets. Less than 15% of executives’ exhibit strength in money skills, suggesting growth occurs after transitioning into an executive role.

Executives struggle most with influence, hindering their ability to fuel transformation and change initiatives. New leaders often come into their roles unprepared, causing higher levels of scrutiny and an exponentially increased risk of failure.

In contrast, well-aligned senior teams (irrespective of gender) can handle change better and are 22% more likely to be able to effectively fill critical leadership roles.

“The Executive Leadership Outlook 2020 provides an inside look at who organizations consider for senior roles, and where their strengths and weaknesses lie,” Neal said. “This data helps companies better understand where they need to focus to prepare leaders for their most important – and highest risk – roles.

Time for diversity and inclusion at CEO level

On what organizations can do to attract and retain female leadership, a McKinsey report suggests that there must be a concerted effort to promote organizational diversity initiatives and goals, especially where CEO promotion is involved. The reason many of these goals and initiatives fail is that they are not made to be a priority within the organization. Employees may be apathetic or may doubt the effectiveness of the initiatives and goals that are in place.

“To increase the likelihood of success, organizations should have diversity goals that are tied to management goals. It is important for goals to not only be objective but they should be tied to individual goals in order to hold employees accountable. Having a specific number of female leaders you strive for is an example of a specific and measurable goal that your organization can implement,” it says.

Reassessing and revamping policies and procedures can also be an effective way to increase gender diversity and retain female leadership within your company. Allowing employees to have flexible work hours, modified work schedules, enforcing equal pay, and a competitive maternity leave policy are just a few examples of how your organization can attract more female employees, including in the top rung.

An important part of increasing female leadership is mentorship, as research indicates that strategies like reverse mentoring, where senior leaders are paired with high potential employees to allow each individual to learn from each other, is effective at increasing female leadership within the company. Offering constructive pathways and training to help high potential employees grow can create a strong pipeline for female leadership.

2018 Namely Diversity Report revealed that males are more likely to receive recognition at work and female employees tend to be under-recognized within the organization. The report also found that males receive more raises and promotions than female employees.

When creating an environment to develop more female leadership, recognizing our own prejudice and bias is imperative to overcoming barriers. Diversity and inclusion training should be implemented on a frequent and ongoing basis and should focus on strategies to change long-term behaviors. As Neal observed in the DDI research, “Organizations that want to unleash new capabilities and future talents need to seek out leaders who think and operate differently. They’re going to need stronger, more inclusive pipelines to find these fresh perspectives and wisdom.”

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at