Why We Need to Bridge the Gender Gap in Leadership Development


There are 7.8 billion people in the world, and 49.6% of them are women. Yet according to Statista, only 26.5% of executive, senior-level and management positions in S&P 500 companies are held by women. And fewer than 8% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women.

For decades, female managers and executives have been less supported in career advancement than male colleagues, overlooked for opportunities to take on projects and roles that demonstrate leadership potential and faced workplace pressures to “prove” themselves and/or outperform male colleagues.

The struggle for women in leadership has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Now the added layers of personal obligations (juggling roles as caretaker for children, elderly relatives or both), economic and job uncertainty, and catering to the overall wellbeing of the family have become a recipe for female burnout.

But the pandemic is precipitating an even more immediate and direct loss of female talent in the workplace–through attrition. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2.6 million women left the workforce between March and September 2020 (compared to 1.7 million men) and 865,000 women left the workforce in September alone, in most cases due to the added ongoing responsibility of childcare and home schooling.

Not only does this loss of women destabilize the leadership potential in many organizations, it puts enormous pressure on the remaining pool of talent, and on recruitment professionals to meet a need for more diverse leadership. 

Instead of prioritizing external hires, however, organizations should invest money, time and energy on developing and supporting inhouse talent–women who already know the business, its goals and who would then feel they have a place to make a real difference within it.

Establishing a formal strategy would ensure women have options to keep moving forward and not slip through the cracks. Yet HR.com’s The State of Women in Leadership 2020 report indicates only 33% of respondents had programs advocating for women leaders and 42% had no plans to create them. 

For true diversity, equity and inclusion, organizations need the perspectives female leaders bring. Which means they need to find ways to put–and keep–more women on the path to leadership. Long recognizing the lack of development equity in the market, ExecOnline specifically developed Women in Leadership programs to support the L&D journey of female executives. Our experienced team helps organizations shape a curriculum for their specific needs: one that’s relevant to the challenges of women leaders today while preparing them to address whatever may come tomorrow.

From February to October 2020, 41% of senior business leaders enrolled in ExecOnline programs were women. In October alone, that number climbed to 44%. It’s a promising trend toward development equity, indicating organizations are recognizing the importance of promoting, encouraging and investing in development opportunities for women.

ExecOnline’s applied learning approach furthers those opportunities. In fact, 97% of women leaders in ExecOnline programs have leveraged what they learned directly for their role. Not only has that brought an immediate ROI to their organizations, 45% of women* report that they’ve expanded their professional responsibilities within 3-12 months of completing an ExecOnline program.

Value like that reported by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. According to their calculations, a profitable firm where 30% of leaders are women could expect to add more than a percentage point to its net margin (representing a potential 15% boost to profitability).

Regression is a real risk. The COVID-19 pandemic will be a disruptor for the foreseeable future. And the lack of sufficient development planning combined with the exodus of women from the workforce will have a devastating effect on an organization’s long-term stability. Organizations that want them to position themselves most competitively for the future should act now to invest in increased opportunities to develop the women leaders they’ll need for sustainable success. 

Interested in Learning More?
  • Check out our infographic representing this challenging journey of women in leadership here.

Contact Us for details on ExecOnline’s Women in Leadership offering.