The problem: Organizations are still struggling with building sustainable pipelines of female talent with a clear path to the CEO role.

Why it matters: Despite gains in the number of female CEOs in recent years, experts worry that momentum may stall out.

The solution: Accelerate female leadership through deliberate career-mapping, incentives for managers, and early board access.

Kate Stevenson credits landing her first public company board role with the opportunity to build her reputation with her own board of directors. When she was a telecommunications executive at a company steering through a crisis, she found herself suddenly playing a leading role in board briefings. At one point, Stevenson says she was presenting in front of the board “every single week.” 

Though she didn’t know it at the time, that experience would set her on a path of board service for the rest of her career. She had built a rapport with her board, which gave her the benefit of mentorship that directly led to her landing her first director role. One of the members of her company’s board also doubled as the Lead Director of a Nasdaq-listed company’s board, which had a vacant seat that it wanted to fill with a financial expert to help navigate newly instituted audit and accounting disclosure regulations born from the passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. He recommended Stevenson to the firm running the search, and she not only got the open seat but also was named chair of the audit committee. “My exposure to the board when I was in management led to sponsorship from one of our board members,” says Stevenson, who has served on numerous corporate boards and currently chairs the board of CIBC.

Having board exposure as an executive, both to her own company’s board and as a director on an outside board, led to a supportive circle of advisors —Stevenson refers to such access as a “golden ticket” to professional growth and top leadership opportunities. Indeed, according to a new study of 21 female CEOs—a post-COVID update to the landmark “Women CEOs Speak” study in 2017—early board service is an integral part that women leaders say leads to the top role. Roughly 70% of the female CEOs in the study said serving on boards early in their careers helped develop leadership skills, boosted visibility, and prepared them to manage their own boards once they became CEOs. And to get there, they said, they need to be put in the right leadership positions, less in roles as in human resources and marketing and more in functional enterprise-wide roles with profit and loss responsibilities. The problem: “The kind of systemic change needed to put women on clear tracks for CEO and board director positions is not happening fast enough,” says Tanya van Biesen, managing partner of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice for Canada.

“The kind of systemic change needed to put women on clear tracks for CEO and board director positions is not happening fast enough.”

In Canada, for instance, of publicly listed companies disclosing diversity data, women hold 26% of board seats. While Canada has put considerable regulatory focus around advancing women, the percentage of board seats by them is only marginally above the 24% of board seats held by women at Russell 3000 companies in the U.S. “While we’ve seen progress, there’s still a lot of work to be done to build the pipeline of female leaders in Canada,” says van Biesen. The questions is—but how?

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Early in her career, while at mining and energy company BHP, Lorraine Mitchelmore’s manager put her on two major projects—one working with a team on a major policy initiative with the Australian government and another on a gas project working with a broad network of BHP executives. Mitchelmore says without the exposure to the interaction between government and business so early on, along with the decision-making and strategy insight she gained from her BHP colleagues, she never would have gone on to become CEO of Shell Canada. 

In fact, the experience was so central to Mitchelmore’s development as a leader that she used it to inform her entire approach to talent management. “It’s all about nurturing people and giving them what they need to succeed,” she says. During her time at Shell Canada, for instance, Mitchelmore would hold regular career-mapping meetings with the roughly 90 people identified as having senior executive potential to see what teams or projects they could be assigned to fill gaps in experience or skills to reach that level. 

“Female CEOs are still fortuitous appointments based on a small number of breakthrough opportunities. That’s very different than creating sustainable pipelines.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to developing female talent, that kind of conscious, diligent career planning is still rare for many organizations, says Jane Edison Stevenson, Vice Chair of Korn Ferry’s Global Board and CEO Services practice. “Female CEOs are still fortuitous appointments based on a small number of breakthrough opportunities,” she says. “That’s very different than creating sustainable pipelines.”

5 ways to accelerate female leadership

The number of women in CEO roles or board director seats is growing—slowly. Here are five ways organizations can speed up female representation in leadership.

Share your vision

Design structures, networks, and career mapping plans that show high potential female talent a clear path to leadership and how you plan to support them on that journey.

Incent managers

Empower managers to bring up more women through financial and other rewards, performance scorecards, and other KPIs for meeting representation goals and pay equity targets.

Encourage mobility

Move women from back-end and “pink collar” roles into commercial roles that help them learn how the business works.

Integrate work and life

Normalize things like flexible hours, remote working, parental time off, wellness incentives, childcare subsidies, and more to allow for the seamless integration of personal life into daily schedules.

Early board access

Support high potential female talent with exposure to your directors and encourage them to sit on board of other companies, even non-profit or charitable organizations.

To be sure, 40% of the female CEOs Korn Ferry spoke with said that building a sustainable pipeline of women leaders requires organizations have a formal process for identifying high potential talent early in their careers and providing them with the training and experiences needed to advance. At most companies, for instance, future CEOs need to be placed in sequenced global rotations across P&L leadership and key enterprise roles starting 10 to 15 years before they enter the C-suite, says Edison Stevenson. Organizational leaders, both male and female, also need to take an active role in helping “network in” high potential female talent, either through pairing them with mentors and sponsors or providing introductions to key executives in the organization and across the industry. “Unless companies give women the right development and leadership experiences to be ready, that talent will remain untapped,” says Edison Stevenson.

One way organizations are trying to get women into the right positions is by tying bonuses and other financial incentives for executive and managers to diversity goals to build a pipeline of female leaders. As one female CEO said of tying financial incentives to diversity goals, “moving the needle would not have happened without it.” In the aftermath of the pandemic, forward-thinking organizations are looking at ways to normalize things like flexible hours, remote working, parental time off, wellness incentives, childcare subsidies, and more to allow for the seamless integration of personal life into daily schedules for both male and female talent. 

Still, few corporate pipelines are dependably hitting all those marks, and fewer still include women at every stage of their careers. “It’s not just about promoting women,” says Edison Stevenson. “It’s about putting them on clear leadership succession tracks.”

Reaching the top in Canada

Three female leaders whose distinguished careers helped put them in the CEO or board seat.

Kate Stevenson,

Member of the Board, 11 years, and current Chair of the Board
“Boards today need to be engaged with and see up-and-coming female talent.”

Lorraine Mitchelmore
Shell Canada

Former President and Country Chair, 7 years
“Getting female talent networked into the Canadian corporate world is absolutely essential to their advancement.”

Kathleen Taylor
Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts/Royal Bank of Canada

President and CEO, 23 years/Chair of the Board, 8 years
“Organizations have to be much more deliberate about ensuring women are in roles that have a path to be CEO.”

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In the 2017 study, two-thirds of the women interviewed said they never saw themselves as CEO. That is starting to change. In this year’s study, all 21 female leaders not only set their sights on the top job, but also believed they could achieve it. Korn Ferry’s van Biesen says the shift in attitude “shows that the idea of female leaders is becoming normalized and a conscious choice.” 

Sure, there are still plenty of studies that show that many women simply don’t want to be leaders. But Katie Taylor, former CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and current Chair of the Board of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) believes those studies don’t tell the whole picture. “I didn’t have big ambitions to be a CEO either,” she says. “I grew up in a small Canadian town where women didn’t do executive work. Those opportunities weren’t generally available to women.”

Taylor was one of just a handful of women in the hotel business when she started and was the first woman to reach the senior executive ranks at Four Seasons as an exception that proves the rule. In fact, a new meta-analysis of 60 years of workplace research found that the biggest gap in CEO aspirations between men and women happens among working adults within male-dominated industries.

“The idea of female leaders is becoming normalized and a conscious choice.”

Canada’s resource-based economy—think mining, oil, and gas—is one reason why it lags other countries in female CEOs, for instance. Only 5.3% of companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange reporting diversity data have a woman as their CEO, well below the approximately 9% of Fortune 500 company CEOs who are women. Singapore ranks as the country with the highest percentage of female CEOs at 13.1%, followed by Sweden, Thailand, Ireland, and France. In fact, while the pandemic helped propel efforts to increase the number of women CEOs and board directors, experts fear that its disproportional impact on female workers—more women left the workforce compared to men—will blunt the momentum. 

What the data says to Taylor, however, is that all leaders need to do a better job of ensuring that high potential female talent has a line of sight to the opportunities are available to them, especially for those women who had to leave the workforce or take a less demanding position for a period to take care of an elderly parent or to raise children. “The hard truth is that sometimes women have to make career choices in the moment to alleviate other pressures,” says Taylor. Instead of viewing that as a setback, managers need to have deliberate paths to get them back on track to achieving their long-term career goals, she says. To keep the momentum going, Taylor says “organizations can be more determined about how they think about and plan for putting women into roles that have a path to the C-suite.”


For more information contact Tanya van Biesen at or Jane Edison Stevenson at