Only 28% of women occupy c-suite roles - here are 4 ways to change that

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February 1, 2024 | 6 min read

Despite progress in diversity, women - especially of color - occupy few c-suite positions. Here, Bianca Ker (senior director of customer success, Sprout Social), looks at the ongoing challenges in leadership diversity - and how marketers can overcome them.

We’ve done a lot in diversity, and it’s important to recognize that, but it’s equally important to recognize that we are not done. When it comes to diversity in leadership roles, there is still a lag. Research from McKinsey found that women only make up 28% of c-suite roles. When sorted by ethnicity, the picture is even bleaker for women of color, who only make up 6% of c-suite roles. To see the full benefits of diversity, we must apply best efforts and practices at all levels of an organization, not just entry level.

Looking towards the future, the business case for diversity is clear. Gen-Z professionals actively look for diversity when applying to jobs, implying that the future of the workforce will value diversity highly. Research shows that talented candidates are more likely to seek diversity in their career prospects. One of the reasons candidates seek out diversity is because it can further their professional growth as well. Exposure to more opinions and perspectives strengthens emotional intelligence and empathy and keeps our thinking flexible.

When it comes to marketing leadership, while the industry has made great strides in gender parity, there has been a steep decline in diversity, even when compared to other industries. As an industry that centers on communication and awareness, marketing is the one place you do not want to cultivate a homogenous environment, as less diverse teams are more at risk of making embarrassing and insensitive marketing faux pas. 

Diversity in leadership is a two-fold problem. There’s the initial challenge of diversifying existing leadership and a need to ensure that leadership remains diversified moving forward. It’s about building a pipeline. I don’t have a perfect solution for this problem, and realistically, the way forward isn’t a singular solution but a collection of practices and approaches that can be adapted to an individual organization’s unique needs and cultures. 

Here are a few ideas for getting started.

1. Examine diverse hiring practices at other levels of the organization

Diverse hiring practices are about cultivating a more diverse pool of candidates to find the best fit for a role. One area that’s seen significant progress in diverse hiring is entry-level and individual contributor roles. Examining the practices put into place at these levels is a great way to find inspiration for making changes at the leadership role level. It can also help you identify where there are obstacles in your pipeline. 

For example, if your leadership roles require a certain training or level of experience, but you cannot find diverse candidates that meet that requirement, you can now take steps to bridge that gap and improve your candidate pool.

2. Create internal opportunities

One of the most effective ways a business can improve diversity in leadership candidates is to create internal opportunities. Leadership training programs are a good example. Not only do they provide employees the chance to gain skills to further their careers, but by creating these programs internally, organizations can tailor them to the business's specific needs.

Mentorship programs are another way to foster leadership opportunities. Research shows that employees who were mentored are more likely to receive a promotion and be promoted faster than those who don’t. Because mentorships are more personal, they can be customized to fit the goals and skills of individual employees while also providing them the chance to build strong relationships with higher-level employees.

It’s important to be thoughtful in how you approach and establish your programs. Whether pairing mentees with a mentor who looks like them or one who doesn’t – both of which have their value – as long as you take a mindful approach to establishing pairs, the program is sure to be successful.

3. Acknowledge and address shortcomings

Equally important to creating positive change is acknowledging potentially harmful processes. Without recognizing where things went wrong, we make it difficult to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. One step to take is requiring management and leadership roles to undergo unconscious bias training. As the people who have direct control over who advances in the company or not, these positions must recognize our tendency to lean towards the familiar and provide them tools and practices to make objective assessments around candidates. 

4. Re-examine what makes a candidate qualified

A common mistake in hiring is being too narrow in your definition of qualified. Yes, candidates must have a certain set of skills and qualities to perform well, but is where and how they earned them as important? How much difference is there between a candidate with a degree in business management versus a candidate with no degree but five years of team lead experience? 

Narrow job post parameters can particularly affect leadership roles since a large portion of leadership responsibilities are soft skills rather than hard ones. Learning how to resolve conflict, manage a team, and delegate tasks are skills that can be learned in any industry and demonstrated in many types of roles.  

A good exercise for evaluating qualifiers is to look at the candidates hired during a labor shortage versus an excess of labor and see how those workers are doing now. We tend to raise the bar when the labor market is high and bring it down when the market is low, but how much difference did those qualifiers make when looking at an employee’s progress over time? 

The business case for diversity has never been more obvious. However, there is still work to do at the leadership level to prioritize diversity. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving this; instead, organizations must make a concerted and proactive effort to improve diversity in leadership roles and reap the benefits of doing so. 


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