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The Path to Gender Parity in Leadership

The Path to Gender Parity in Leadership

by Kate Den Houter and Kristin Barry

Emerging from a global pandemic that disproportionately affected women, 2023 saw an all-time high participation rate for mothers with young children,1 as well as the narrowest gender gap for workforce participation in U.S. history.2 Furthermore, an unprecedented number of women are sitting on boards and holding CEO positions for Fortune 500 companies.3 However, women remain underrepresented in leadership roles, in part because existing job structures and parental expectations present barriers to growth.

Women’s Career Aspirations

Gallup recently conducted a two-part study to better understand working women’s perspectives on career growth. When asked, “Thinking about your career long term, what type of role would you like to have, realistically?”, 26% of men and 17% of women say they are interested in becoming a senior leader or a leader who manages other managers.

In contrast, when presented with the opportunity to think about a “perfect world,” those numbers increase for both men and women, with 34% of men and 22% of women indicating they would like to achieve a senior leadership position. This increase across gender groups suggests that both men and women perceive certain realities of leadership roles that deter them from seeking that level of growth.

Reviewing the data by current employment level, Gallup finds that women’s -- and men’s -- interest in leadership positions grows as they move up the corporate ladder. This suggests that as people gain experience managing others, they may also gain confidence in their ability to do so, and leadership roles likely feel more within reach.


While women’s interest in senior leadership increases with experience, the overall percentage of women indicating interest in working at the highest level -- even in a “perfect world” -- still trails that of men.

Derailers in Women’s Advancement

Women who expressed interest in obtaining high-level leadership positions were asked if certain conditions or characteristics of such roles would discourage them from pursuing their career goals. A majority of women are not deterred by requirements like working 50 hours a week or managing fast-paced and high-intensity work.

While there is slightly more hesitation around extensive travel, six in 10 women are not discouraged from seeking a role that may require it. Where women’s interest appears to wane is when the hours associated with a leadership position increase to 60 per week. It is the one factor asked about that a majority of women report would deter them from senior leadership.

While men and women are largely in agreement regarding what will and will not discourage them from pursuing high-level positions, women are more likely to indicate that needing to be available outside of working hours would deter them from seeking a leadership role.


Parenting Affects Parity in Leadership

Being the parent or guardian of a child younger than 18 presents some unique challenges for women in the journey toward parity. Women with children (14%) are twice as likely as men with children (7%) to report having had three or more days in the past month when they were unable to perform their usual work responsibilities because of issues with child care.

To better understand how parental responsibilities intersect career trajectories, Gallup asked parents and guardians who aspire to senior leadership positions how their child care responsibilities have affected their work. The findings vary significantly by gender.

Despite 38% of men and 39% of women strongly agreeing that their organization provides them with the flexibility needed to address child care responsibilities, women with children (66%) are three times as likely as men with children (22%) to strongly agree that they are the parent or guardian who is expected to address unexpected child care issues. Nearly twice as many women with children (45%) as men with children (24%) have seriously considered reducing their hours because of child care issues.

Being the default responder to children’s needs may be hindering women’s career advancement. Women with children (37%) are more than twice as likely as their male counterparts (17%) to have had to decline or delay a promotion because of family obligations. In addition, women with children (40%) are 2.9 times as likely as men with children (14%) to have seriously considered leaving their job because of child care issues.

These data highlight the challenges women with leadership aspirations face during key child-rearing years. They are more likely than men with children to take steps to address child care issues that can impede -- or completely derail -- their long-term career trajectories.

Breaking Barriers: Rethinking Leadership Role Structures

Women in the world of work have made major strides, but organizations need to take action for that progress to extend into leadership roles.

Clarify criteria for determining "leadership potential.” To diversify leadership development pipelines, organizations need to critically review the qualifications required to be considered for leadership roles, along with the criteria for evaluating, identifying and developing leaders. Establishing clear performance expectations and criteria for promotion supports objective decision-making and provides a road map for all employees who want to grow their career.

Hold leaders accountable for developing the next generation. Women who have opportunities at work to learn and grow are more likely to aspire to be senior leaders. Developmental key experiences -- such as participating in leadership training or being challenged to turn around a failing program -- are pivotal in equipping future leaders with the knowledge and skills needed to climb the corporate ladder. Isolated mentorship programs are insufficient to prepare women for that next step. Moreover, leaders themselves grow when they teach, so developing and sponsoring high-potential talent should be an expectation of their role.

Flex to meet the needs of high-performing employees. Women rank “greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing” as the factor they find most important when considering taking another job -- even surpassing a significant improvement in pay or benefits. Establishing flexible and hybrid work policies enables women to balance the often conflicting but mutually valued responsibilities of work and life. However, written policies are not enough. Organizations must create a culture that supports and promotes their workers' appropriate use of such policies. Employees are listening and watching for an indication that the expressed culture is real and something lived at all levels.

With COVID-era federal funding having expired and an estimated 3.2 million children affected,[4] the U.S. is facing a child care crisis. If women continue to be the default responders to family needs, their careers will be disproportionately impacted if organizations don’t find ways to help.

Listen first, and then act. Every workplace is composed of individuals with unique perspectives, skills, needs and ambitions. The best way to determine what kind of leadership development women want is to ask them. Interview high-performing leaders within your organization to identify opportunities to scale meaningful development. Implement a comprehensive listening strategy that enables and supports the prioritization of advancement initiatives. Changes to job structures and role expectations that may enhance the representation of women in leadership positions are likely to benefit all employees.

People want both a good job and a life well-lived. As organizations look to fill and diversify their leadership talent bench, the changing expectations and needs of the workforce must be considered.




[1] Bauer, L. & Wang, S. Y. (2023, Aug. 30). Prime-age women are going above and beyond in the labor market recovery. The Hamilton Project.


[2] Economic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, & U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). FRED labor force participation rate.,LNU01300001,#


[3] Schaeffer, K. (2023, Sept. 27). The data on women leaders. Pew Research Center.


[4] Kashen, J., Valle-Gutierrez, L., Woods, L. & Milli, J. (2023, June 21). Child care cliff: 3.2 million children likely to lose spots with end of federal funds. The Century Foundation.

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