Women on Deck

You could call it a comeback. After years of watching their share of the labor pool shrink, the latest federal data shows women’s workplace participation in the United States has hit a new high for the decade.

The number of women active in the country’s labor force reached 75.8% in the last quarter of 2018, the highest since 2010, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s still below the peak of 77.3% in the year 2000, but the rising tide of women in the workforce is “great news” for organizations looking to diversify their C-suite, says Heather Barnfield, director of intellectual property development at the Korn Ferry Institute, Korn Ferry’s research arm.

“With robust talent management going deep within the organization, the gender imbalance in the leadership pipeline can be redressed,” says Barnfield, who worked on Korn Ferry’s report, Australian Women CEOs Speak. “Increasing the number of women CEOs will finally start to move off the slow burner.”

The timing of the new stats couldn’t be better as International Women’s Day rolls around this Friday, March 8. The uptick could be counted among the positive strides that have been made since last March to advance diversity among leadership. Amid the progress: in 2018, women in the United States gained more seats on boards and in Congress than they had in at least a decade. And across the pond, the United Kingdom saw the highest number of women in history sitting in the House of Commons last year.

The year 2018 also saw broader acknowledgment of pay inequality, with numerous US states—and countries like Canada—enacting policies to address the gender wage gap. Not only that, but the discussions among organizations around diversity and inclusion are more broad-based to include other groups and classes, says Shannon Hassler, a principal with Korn Ferry’s Advancing Women Worldwide team. “The conversation is elevated to something that’s more accurate,” she says. “It puts us in a better position to find solutions.”

But, Hassler adds, transparent, open conversations about gender inequality aren’t necessarily moving the needle when it comes to progressing women into leadership roles. In fact, the percentage of women CEOs among the Fortune 500 has actually fallen over the last year to just 5%. In 2017, that number was 6.4%, according to research from Korn Ferry’s seminal campaign, Women CEOs Speak.

Talks alone won’t diversify the C-suite, nor will more women entering the workforce, experts say. Instead, Korn Ferry research shows that even with a large share of women employed at the entry level, it’s still a small percentage that makes it to the top of an organization’s corporate ladder. Whether there’s an uptick of women in the labor pool, companies should implement “inclusive talent policies and practices, leadership accountability, and differentiated development programs to help women grow their skills,” says Beatrice Grech-Cumbo, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global leader for Advancing Women Worldwide. “More investment earlier in the pipeline is essential.”

For her part, Barnfield says in order for leaders to make these early investments, there needs to be “a change in the bedrock of the organization.” Companies need to assess and ultimately retool their processes, procedures, and practices so that they support and encourage women’s advancement to the C-suite. That not only means discovering women early in their careers, but also giving women access to executives and senior leadership, sponsoring and mentoring high-potentials, rooting out structural and unconscious bias in talent management practices, promoting zero tolerance of discrimination and unfair treatment, and encouraging work-life balance, among other important inclusive practices.

“Organizations have to focus on conscious inclusion,” Barnfield says. “It is not optional.”