Faster but fewer: The (small) window in the glass ceiling

LinkedIn research shows that women reach leadership positions faster than men, but significantly fewer women make it to the top. Our numbers suggest that there’s a window of opportunity in early career, and that they either have to make it fast, or they won’t make it all.

This year’s International Women’s Day is celebrated under the theme Balance for Better. While a balance of genders sounds simple enough, it continues to elude the majority of countries and professions, and most recent research shows that with the current pace of progress we are still generations from any kind of balance.

In partnership with the ILO, LinkedIn has conducted research into women’s career progression and how it differs from the experience of mens in the same workforce. We set out to better understand how women and men make progress in their careers, what we found reveals some causes for hope, but some areas that need renewed focus from policy makers and business leaders:

The women who get to the top, get there faster than men

Analysing data for five countries - the United States, India, Germany, Italy, and Norway - we found the same pattern in every country: women rise faster than men. Taking the average difference across these five countries, women need 1.4 years less than men to reach a leadership position. Research by the ILO confirms this and found that women also tend to be younger when they reach leadership roles.

… but there are so few women who make it to the top.

The problem is that many fewer women make it to the top. Even in Norway, considered one of the countries with the smallest overall gender gap, just under one third of leaders are women. In India, not even one in five leaders are female.

Country % of Current Leaders that are female Male:Female Ratio
Germany 20% 4
India 17% 4.9
Italy 30% 2.3
Norway 32% 2.1
United States 35% 1.9

The window of opportunity for women

Most worryingly, our research shows that women have a much smaller window of opportunity to get to the top than men. For each woman who achieves a leadership position in the first decade of her career, there are 1.8 men doing the same. Over the course of a career, the ratio increases - for members who first reach a leadership position during the second decade of their career, there are 2.3 male leaders for every female leader. This means that for the women that their second decade in work without reaching leadership, the chance of them doing so - relative to men - starts to deteriorate, and continues to do so for the rest of their careers.

As illustrated below, this pattern is particularly pronounced in India and Germany, where the ratios are almost 50% higher than the average across the five countries we studied.

What now?

While the numbers show a clear picture across countries and industries, they don’t tell us the reasons or the solutions.

One reason for the faster progression could be the tougher selection women have to go through, which means that only the absolute best female candidates make it to the top. Other research has found the parallel phemonom: that more men of less talent succeed in business.

Another reason could be that career progression and founding a family typically fall into the same period of life, so more women in this important period are taking career breaks or otherwise deprioritizing their career ambitions in order to accommodate the demands of family life.

Balance or equality can only be achieved through understanding the obstacles that exist, and then designing interventions that target these obstacles and allow women to thrive, giving them the same opportunities as men. Pointing to the very specific gender gaps that exist and persist in our societies will be key to achieving #BalanceForBetter.

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