Why Do Female Leaders Get Stuck in Middle Management Roles?

Against the backdrop for women clamoring to have it all, there lies the reality of what actually can happen to women when they enter the workforce. 2012 Research from McKinsey & Company in partnership with The Wall Street Journal Task Force in the Economy, titled “Unlocking the full potential of women at work” revealed the one of biggest learnings from the beginning of the career cycle for women is “many women opt into staff roles, get stuck in middle management or leave without ever having given their companies a chance to address their concerns.” Indeed despite 80% of company’s participating in the research seeing a need for gender diversity as a business imperative, women still make up just 14% of Executive Officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, and only 3.6% of CEO’s are women today.

Our interest in the subject goes beyond our past career experiences, and those years when we struggled to make it into the upper ranks of different industries. We find this subject highly relevant as we work with women leaders today. After answering a RFP for the Healthcare Business Women Association meeting being held in Orlando in November to speak on “Extraordinary Female Leadership- Vision is the Differentiator”, we decided to poll some of our connections to see what their thoughts were about why women get stuck (more than men) in middle management positions. We collected responses from close to 150 women and men with our recent LinkedIn poll.


So, what should companies do to ensure that women have the option to stay and grow in their organizations? Knowing that the two biggest factors women leaders face are family obligations and cultural bias, there are several things they can do:

  1. Create a place of appreciation for women leaders. It’s no secret that the number one competency all leaders need to have today in the global economy is collaboration. While all leaders can be collaborative, women tend to have very strong skills when it comes to understanding how to work across silos and functions while encouraging teams to work together.
  2. Help women develop their visioning skills. A 2008 Harvard Business article by Hermina Ibarra and Otilia Obodaru detailed the findings of 360 feedback results with 2,816 executives. Women scored higher on every competency except one: envisioning! Owning a vision helps all leaders maintain higher engagement levels for themselves and their teams.
  3. Foster a culture of networking supplying women mentors, coaches and opportunities to connect. Men have long made use of informal connections that come natural to them: the golf game, the sports connections, the hunting trip. Women need to grasp the need to create their own powerful connections at work and not be afraid to ask for a sponsor, mentor or coach to grow their careers.
  4. Allow women to own their choices around family issues, and prepare to allow them flexibility and a safe and easy way to opt back into the organization. Nurturing talent who may take time off to spend with young children or aging parents requires creating new ways of doing business: job sharing, part-time work, flex hours, work arrangements from home, nursery and senior service care arrangements.
  5. Study the pay of women vs. men in similar pay grades. Have you set your company up for resentment or worse lawsuits? Challenge assumptions made about women with children – that they can’t take on more or they shouldn’t take on more.

Talent remains the great equalizer for all companies. Recognition of the importance of women in your talent landscape is half the battle, and acting on cultural bias through creation of real opportunities for women to make their own choices benefits everyone.