How do you Develop Women Leaders for the Top? Start at the Bottom.

The truth is that women must navigate a labyrinth, not a ladder, to get to the top management positions.


Here’s an extraordinary factoid: workers in Botswana or Belarus are more likely to have a female manager than are workers in the U.K., or even in the U.S. 

The International Labour Organization has already made the business case for women in management, and it is compelling. We know that women are uniquely suited to leadership. What’s more, 40 years of research confirms that women managers outperform their male counterparts. Firms with more women in senior positions attain better business outcomes; are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide better customer experiences. 

So why then is there still a gender gap at the top?

The McKinsey/Lean In Women in the Workplace 2020 report shines some light on this point. In the process, it makes an alarming revelation. Women in the U.S., in fact, are underrepresented at every level of management, not just the top tiers.

The path to developing women leaders is clearer than many might expect, but it faces COVID-cultivated threats. The pandemic forever transformed the way we work. Remote working schemes disproportionately created an unfair impact on women: 1 in 4 contemplate leaving their jobs or downshifting their careers. 

We at wanted to know more and identify how we could help. The effects coming out of the pandemic now represent an opportunity for women and organisations.  Read on to find out how organisations can close the gender gap.

Minding the gap: Women as Managers in the U.K. Workplace

The lack of women as managers in U.K. organisations is not a new phenomenon. The number of female CEOs at FTSE 100 companies in 2020 has only increased by only one since 2012-– from four CEOs to five-- and that “accomplishment” was not without British government intervention. 

It’s clear that targets are not enough to make significant change for U.K. women leaders. Whether the industry is historically “female friendly” (like retail and health care) or not (like finance and banking), men dominate the ranks of management. 

What the U.S. McKinsey/Lean In report so clearly reveals is the “broken rung” at the first step up to manager. The lack of women promoted to the first level of management is the most influential factor in perpetuating the gender gap in the workplace. 

A Delayed Start and Futile Attempts to Catch up

Women start their careers from behind. They’re getting stuck at the entry level where only 38% of manager level positions are women-held. In comparison, 62% of similar managerial positions are held by men. Once men pull ahead at these junior- and mid- management levels, it’s then a straight shot to the top where men continuously outnumber women.


“Promotion appeal” is another key factor that continues to influence women’s managerial promotability. That is, women are less likely to hold positions which would accelerate success by shining a spotlight on performance. These are high potential, high recognition positions like handling high-profile clients or helping build a line of business. It’s more common for women to take on-- or be steered into-- support roles, like project management.  

This “support” factor is a recurring theme when it comes to  “promotion appeal.” It’s similarly influenced by a more systemic gender-related factor. Women are more often managers in support functions like human resources, finance and administration.  Men, on the other hand, dominate the functions that are considered to be more strategic that typically lead to the C- level and board membership-- research and development, operations, and profit and loss.

It’s a Labyrinth not a Ladder: the Truth About how Women Become Leaders 

Women hit setbacks on the way to their very first promotion. They don’t climb the proverbial ladder toward success, they journey through a labyrinth. A woman can be using the perfect leadership style, but she’s not effective unless others are willing to follow her. Taking this into consideration, what’s truly influencing hiring and promotion decisions? 

There are multiple reasons women are thwarted when it comes to managerial success. It has to do with the way we think about women, about men, and about leadership. People’s behaviours and idiosyncrasies are viewed through a gender-influenced lens.  Perceptions like being “bossy” versus being “assertive” make women’s paths to power all the more difficult.  Women are undermined by walls all around

This is still the case today, despite the volume of evidence in support of female leaders. Traditional feminine traits and values actually make women stronger leaders, particularly during transformational times. Transformational leaders are adaptive, keep a helicopter view, seek out collaboration, and allow subordinates to puzzle out solutions for themselves.

Women overcome and carry on, but they face psychological splinters on their way to the top. Companies need to usher in the changes needed to repair the “broken rung.” 

When organisations focus on developing policies, skills, and workplace culture to support their aspiring women at the lower-levels, they create for themselves a repository of qualified and promotable women at the ready.

Fixing the Broken Rung Needs a Reciprocal Approach

Organisations stand to gain 1 million more women in management if they obligingly focus efforts at the bottom.

1. Organisations Standing up for Women

Female workers in the U.K. are already less likely to become managers than male workers because of the additional, at-home work women traditionally take on. Moreover, they’re overstretched from the pressures of trying to balance it all. As a result, women are quitting or downshifting their careers just to get some steady footing. 

Organisations can retain these pandemic-stretched female workers. The gains forged from increasing the number of women as managers are fragile. It will be for naught if organisations don’t step up to ease the additional burdens on working women. It’s, moreover, urgent that organisations create broadened opportunities to ensure women’s success in the long term. 

By carrying on with and expanding what made remote work successful for many, organisations can make substantial improvements in closing the gender gap:

  • Creating a flexible and empathetic workplace culture.
  • Training for unconscious biases.
  • Encouraging “flip the script” thinking and communication.
  • Offering skill development, guided goal setting, and internal sponsorships to women at every level, particularly the entry level. 

To close the gender gap, women first need support from the organisations they serve. If organisations hired and promoted first-level women managers at the same rates as men, organisations would add 1 million more women to management. The gender gap could close within a generation instead of decades. 

2. Women Standing up for Themselves

Iconic “9 to 5” working woman, Dolly Parton preaches, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” The underlying truth to this Dollyism is that women need to take control if they want to rise in the ranks. Doing good work does not go far enough to get women noticed for management positions.

To get ahead, women need to assess their skills and train for perceived deficiencies. As a woman interested in management, you need to ask yourself, “How am I showing my potential as a manager?”  If you’re woman at or below the lower rung, in particular, you’ll need to:

  • Take control of your skills to overcome any real or perceived weakness. These can be gender-based factors like speaking-up, communicating more directly, asking for what you want, not being afraid to say no to requests, projecting self-confidence, and acting proactively rather than reactively. 

  • Create a personal brand to enhance your internal mobility. Assembling and cultivating an internal network of female colleagues is vital for expanding influence within an organisation. If you want to get noticed, you will need sponsors advocating for you in the room during organizational changes and promotion discussions. 

Women's place within the workplace is on the cusp of a crisis. Hard-won gains made in closing the workplace gender gap are threatening to be lost. Many women are leaving the workplace because they just don’t see the opportunity to grow within their organisations. 

Companies must act now to champion women from the early stages. If they can do that, they can stem the flow of attrition while creating better foundations for the future.

Women make strong leaders.

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Rama Eriksson

Digital Content Editor (Show more)
Rama Eriksson is a Digital Content Editor at Her writing is complemented by 15+ years as an international marketing professional. She brings her experience and curiosity to connect professionals to the right training to help further their goals. Rama has Masters degrees in both law and business. Originally from the New York area, Rama has lived in Stockholm, Sweden since 2010. (Show less)


Rama Eriksson is a Digital Content Editor at Her writing is complemented by 15+ years as an international marketing professional. She brings her experience and curiosity to connect professionals to the right training to help further their goals. Rama has Masters degrees in both law and business. Originally from the New York area, Rama has lived in Stockholm, Sweden since 2010.