The Uneven Path for Women Executives

A new Korn Ferry study shows more women are reaching the executive level—but only in certain functions and industries.

Financial services is probably not a great path. Neither, surprisingly, is retail. But in human resources departments across all industries, the ranks of women executives are strong.

In the latest look at where women are making headway—and where they are not—a new Korn Ferry study reveals women now make up 39% of all US executives, a 7% increase from four years ago. Australia, the United Kingdom, India, New Zealand, and South Africa saw similar-sized gains, while only China and Sweden saw declines. But the study also showed how uneven the path to the executive roles remains among genders.

Around the world, women have more than one-third of the top jobs in healthcare, hospitality, and the public sectors. Across sectors, more than half, about 51%, of the human resources executives are women, while women hold nearly 40% of the top legal positions and about 33% of the top marketing spots.

But while women account for 60% of all financial services industry professionals, they only hold 30% of executive positions. Similarly, women hold 54% of all retail industry positions but only 32% of executive roles.

Benjamin Frost, a solutions architect in Korn Ferry’s Products business, says the data underscores a simple truth: diversity efforts are often more beholden to advancement and retention processes than hiring practices. “In many ways, organizations are at the mercy of attrition and promotion when it comes to gender representation,” he says.

One clear established path to leadership is managing budgets and financial oversight. Yet, in terms of functional areas, women are underrepresented in many roles with profit-and-loss responsibility. Or, as Jane Stevenson, vice chair of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice, says, women are being placed on executive paths, but they aren’t the avenues that will ultimately lead to the C-suite. According to the data, women account for between 16% and 25% of the executive roles in management, finance, and sales, all functions with profit-and-loss responsibility. “If you think about what is core to business versus what is in support of it, women are put on an executive path in the latter not the former,” Stevenson says.

Put another way, without consciously and purposefully developing a pipeline for female talent to get access to critical leadership roles, any effort to increase female representation through hiring is bound to get derailed. Creating that pipeline requires both behavioral and structural inclusion, says Ayana Parsons, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Consumer practice. Under the former, individuals take on the work of mitigating unconscious bias through their actions, while the latter is about putting equitable systems in place that prevent those biases from occurring in the first place, incorporating clear and transparent processes around how performance management and talent experience decisions are made.

Moreover, Parsons says the promotion of inclusive leaders—who foster collaboration through empathy, diversity of thought, and purpose—goes hand-in-hand with the goals of advancing and developing women. “The more inclusive leaders you have at the top, the more opportunities there will be for women and other underrepresented populations,” she says.

As if closing the gap weren’t daunting already, the pandemic could make it even tougher, says Alina Polonskaia, Korn Ferry’s global leader of diversity and inclusion solutions. Pointing to how four times more women than men have left the workforce in the last year, she says, “Whatever gains made over the last five years are now likely to be lost because of COVID.” Millions of women were left unemployed by the pandemic, and millions more have worked fewer hours, turned down high-profile projects, and taken leaves of absence to take care of family members. All of those actions put women at risk of missing out on promotions and raises or seeing their careers sidetracked in other ways, she says.