Retaining High Potential Women


Does your company struggle to retain high potential women? If so, you're not alone. Despite many organizations setting targets for women in top leadership positions, many still fall short. When does the female leadership pipeline start leaking? What factors contribute to those leakages? What can you do to stop the leaks?

When does the leadership pipeline start leaking?

According to a study conducted by McKinsey & Company, the female leadership pipeline begins to leak in middle management. At the director level, women begin to shift out of line roles and into staff roles. Sixty-two percent of female employees hold director-level line positions, but this number drops to 50% at the vice president level. Research also indicates that women experience diminished ambition over time, with 31% of women reporting they are most ambitious during the first 5-10 years of their careers. In the first two years of their positions, 43% of women aspire to top management positions compared to 34% of men. After just two years, women's aspiration levels drop more than 60% while men's remain the same.

What factors contribute to the leaky leadership pipeline?

There are four types of obstacles women face as they work their way through the leadership pipeline:

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  • Structural obstacles - Seeing is believing. There are simply fewer women at the top, and when younger women don't see models of leadership who look like them, they have a difficult time imagining themselves in top leadership roles. Additionally, although CEOs made gender diversity a priority in more than 80% of companies surveyed in one study, only 50% of employees from those companies agreed that the CEO was committed to the issue. Women also receive fewer opportunities than men for honest, helpful feedback. Rather, they are the recipients of benevolent sexism in their feedback wherein they receive consistent positive feedback but no challenging assignments or promotions. Men's career are also shaped by informal mentoring experiences over drinks or on the golf course where they benefit from political information that is inaccessible to their female colleagues and effectively closes them out of the loop.
  • Lifestyle choices - As much as 50% of women play the role of both primary breadwinner and primary caretaker, while very few men play both roles. Over time, women make choices to shift their career to increase predictability and lessen travel to fulfill their caretaker duties. However, not all women want to leave their work for family balance reasons but instead want a workplace that supports their career ambition at all life stages. In fact, 70% of women in one study reported that they would not have left their company if flexible work options had been available to them. For those women who do opt out for a period of time to care for children, 89% of them want to resume their careers but only 49% successfully return to full-time work.
  • Institutional mindsets - Women often lose out on stretch roles and international assignments because superiors don't even consider them. This causes them to lose out on executive development early on and quickly begins to impact their compensation. In one study of over 600 high potential women, they identified little or no opportunity for advancement, lack of acknowledgement or recognition, gender bias and stereotypes, and lack of manager support as the most significant institutional challenges to their ambition. 
  • Individual mindsets - Research indicates that many women are hesitant to self-promote, and this severely impacts their ability to get noticed. Over 50% of women feel they hold themselves back. Later career women report that they should have cultivated sponsor relationships earlier in their careers and did not even consider putting themselves in the running for stretch roles.

What can organizations do to stop the leaks in the female leadership pipeline?

According to McKinsey & Company, organizations who have demonstrated success in hiring, retaining, and promoting women regularly engage in these five practices:

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  • Hands-on leadership - Companies who are successful in achieving their diversity goals have leaders who invest personally in the effort and who actively role model the desired mind-sets and behaviors necessary to build a more open and accepting culture. They are a vocal ambassador for the effort, and they reach out to other senior male leaders to get them involved.
  • Giving clout to diversity leadership goals - In order to be successful in achieving diversity-related goals, managers who are tasked with carrying the torch must be well-respected throughout the organization. They must maintain vigilance cycle after cycle in keeping their team focused on diversity goals and regularly assess progress. Most importantly, they need to have the ability to make overt the hidden mindsets that emerge in talent management discussions and make sure there are consequence for not providing honest and challenging feedback.
  • Pervasive sponsorship - I've written/spoken elsewhere about the necessity of sponsors (as opposed to mentors) for talented women. CEOs and diversity leaders should personally take responsibility for sponsorship programs to make sure sponsors open the door to growth opportunities, counsel women through their challenges, and advocate for their advancement. Through effective sponsorship relationships, talented women are able to dive deep into the company strategy and business operations.
  • Robust talent management - What gets measured is what matters. In order for gender diversity initiatives to be effective, people must be held accountable for them. Recruiting, promotion, and success-planning processes should be adapted to include a focus on commitment to gender diversity. Additionally, leaders should be expected to get to know their female team members and to strategize with them about potential career moves.
  • Strong accountability and strong data - In order to achieve desired outcomes, organizations must set aspirations, goals, and benchmarks for any diversity initiative. In order to allow for comparisons across the organization and to establish a process for performance dialogues at every level, a common fact base should be established. Additionally, the organization should carefully examine their practices regarding decision rights to assure that women are considered for promotions and treated fairly in performance reviews.

If your organization is committed to stopping the leaks in the female leadership pipeline, I can help you by customizing my robust AWARE Women's Leadership program to help you meet your organizational goals. Contact me at 325-864-1209 or to learn more!


Barsh, J., & Yee, L. (2012). Unlocking the full potential of women at work. McKinsey & Company.

Bear, J.B., Cushenberry, L., London, M., & Sherman, G.D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly,

Marcus, B., & Mainiero, L. (2016). Lost leaders in the pipeline: Capitalizing on women's ambition to offset the future leadership shortage. Women's Success Coaching.


Jaime GoffComment