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Why Can’t Companies Break the Cycle of All-Male Leadership?

June 26, 2018, 3:59 PM UTC

Despite decades of initiatives to increase diversity among corporate leaders, the percentage of female leadership hires has remained relatively stagnant. A recent report from LinkedIn and the World Economic Forum examined the representation of women in leadership roles worldwide, and found that women represent less than 50% of the leaders in every industry analyzed. In some fields, like energy and mining or manufacturing, the numbers are far worse—with women holding less than 20% of leadership positions.

Worst of all, women don’t seem to be making much progress: The proportion of female leaders increased by an average of just 2 percentage points over the 10-year period studied. The World Economic Forum identified only three industries where female corporate leadership exceeded 40%: health care, education, and the nonprofit sector—industries that opened their doors to women early, and where women have played integral roles for generations, eventually working their way into more senior roles.

These three fields reflect the promise—and impact—of more equitable hiring over time, but they also reveal a troubling Catch-22. The representation of women in leadership positions in a given industry is tightly correlated with hiring rates for female leaders, which means that the best way to get women into leadership is to have women in leadership in the first place. Not especially encouraging.

Fortunately, the data also offer some insights into how to break the cycle: We have to all work deliberately to build the pipeline of women in the workplace, and to be intentional in our focus on improving representation of women in leadership roles.

LinkedIn’s analysis suggests that when women are better represented in leadership roles, more women are hired across the board—not just as leaders. This holds true even when considering disparities in the size of female talent pools across industries, which is measured based on the number of women who graduate with specific degrees and specializations.

In some ways, this is not surprising. Numerous studies suggest that, consciously or not, individuals are more likely to hire people like them. Female candidates may also be more attracted to companies with female leadership (possibly seeing more opportunities for advancement or mentorship), and self-select into companies with higher proportions of leaders who are women. The data suggest that when companies hire women at all levels, they build a pipeline of future women leaders.


For industries without robust female representation among leaders, the data suggest that the current cycle may be starting to break. The legal, finance, and real estate sectors have all increased the rate at which they hire women for leadership positions. Given that female leadership seems to be a leading indicator for future hiring of women at all levels, the success of women leaders in these fields may signal the start of a virtuous circle, where women are put in positions to support the development of other women leaders.

Of course, it’s not just women—or those in leadership positions—who are responsible for ensuring diversity in the workforce. Men and women, at all levels, play a critical role in promoting diversity and inclusion. Encouraging more female leadership is just one lever for parity, and we hope that the results of this research spark further discussion about how best to create equity in the workplace.

Bev Perdue served as governor of North Carolina from 2009 to 2013. Nicole Isaac, a former special assistant for legislative affairs to President Obama and founder of Code the Streets, now serves as director of U.S. policy for LinkedIn.