Finding a Job

Fully tapping the talent of high-skill women

In 2010, 58% of all undergraduate degrees in the U.S. were awarded to women. As a result, women accounted for 53% of the total college educated population in the U.S. However, only 50% of the college educated workers were women. Simply said, we don’t have the full amount of female college educated talent in our workforce. Changing this could improve corporate performance and help raise national productivity. But doing so will depend on finding ways to keep ambitious, well-qualified women moving up the management ranks.

Women can also contribute to the productivity challenge by training in disciplines with impact on increasing productivity, such as finance, professional services, and science & technology.


What do women bring to Corporate America? How do women leaders contribute to a company‘s competitive edge? These questions have been the subject of much debate and research. The central challenge in proving a link between gender diversity in top management and improved corporate performance is sample size: Too few companies have had enough women in senior roles to provide statistically significant results. However, there is a growing body of work that compares financial performance to gender diversity at the top.

The 2009 McKinsey Women Matter global survey on gender diversity highlighted the link between the characteristics of women leaders and organizational health. McKinsey’s 2010 Centered Leadership research found that many women bring an approach to leadership well suited for the challenges that major organizations face today:

Catalyst, the U.S. non-profit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business, continues to deliver research on the relationship between the representation of women on boards of directors and corporate performance. In its 2011 research, Catalyst found a 26% difference in return on invested capital (ROIC) between the top-quartile companies (with 19-44% women board representation) and bottom quartile companies (with zero woman directors).

The McKinsey Women Matter team asked business executives globally what they believe the most important leadership attributes are for success today, each of the top four—intellectual stimulation, inspiration, participatory decision-making and setting expectations/rewards—were more commonly found among women leaders.

Companies with three or more women in top positions (executive committee or boards) typically scored higher in organizational health measures and at the same time shown superior financial performance.


As has been well documented, Corporate America has a “leaky” talent pipeline: At each transition up the management ranks, more women are left behind. According to Sylvia Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, women represent 53% of new hires. Catalyst estimates that at the very first step in career advancement—when individual contributors are promoted to managers—the number drops to 37%.

Climbing higher, only 26% of vice presidents and senior executives are female and only 14% of the executive committee, on average, are women. At this point women are doubly handicapped because, 62% are in staff jobs that rarely lead to a CEO role; (in contrast, 65% of men on executive committees hold line jobs.) This helps explain why the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies appears stuck at 2-3%.

Research shows that women—even mothers—retain strong conviction about their abilities and a desire to advance, when they look at the odds of making it through the pipeline, many make a wellreasoned decision: They stay put, look for a job elsewhere that will fulfill their ambition, or seek careers outside large corporations. Women typically encounter four kinds of barriers in their way:

Structural obstacles:

Specific factors that hold women back or that convince women that their odds of advancement may be better elsewhere are lack of access to informal networks where they can make important connections, a lack of female role models higher up in the organization, and a lack of sponsors to provide opportunities, which many male colleagues have.

Lifestyle issues:

The role that life outside work plays in career choices can counter much of the conventional wisdom. For example, according to diversity officers motherhood, per se, rarely prompts a woman to stay put, downshift or look for work elsewhere. No surprise, many women express a concern about the always-on 24/7 executive lifestyle and travel requirements. These days attitudes among fathers and mothers are converging: Half of fathers with one child say they will not accept a new job that reduces work/life balance; 55% of women without children say the same thing. This suggests that companies have even more to lose from the talent pipeline than highly-qualified mothers.

Imbedded institutional mindsets:

The most insidious barriers for women are imbedded mindsets that halt their progress. Managers (men and women) still tell diversity officers that “Everybody ‘knows’ you can’t put a woman in that particular slot.” Or “That job could never be done part-time.” Even at major corporations, not-so-subtle differences linger. Women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential. Management may be acting with best intentions when passing over a female candidate to prevent women from failing; however, it is another example of an implicit mindset barrier to advancing women.

Imbedded individual mindsets:

The effect of women’s own mindsets cannot be discounted. While women remain highly confident of their qualifications throughout their careers, women are, on average, less satisfied than men with their chosen professions and jobs. Moreover, as women get older, their desire to move to the next level dissipates faster than men’s desire. At all ages, more men want to take on more responsibility in their organizations and have greater control over results.

No matter how they feel about their current situation, women never lose their belief in their abilities. According to The Wall Street Journal Executive Task Force for Women In The Economy reserach, age, motherhood, and seniority does not materially change the high response on this question. Women are ambitious and believe they have the qualifications—they want to make a contribution to the success of the organization. Over time, however, the barriers seem to get larger and women’s belief that there is opportunity ahead diminishes—and along with it their willingness to keep pushing.


Women don’t opt out of the workforce; most cannot afford to. They do leave specific jobs for others in pursuit of personal achievement, more money and recognition—just like men. They do hold themselves back to pursue greater satisfaction across all parts of their lives—but not only to fulfill family responsibilities. Indeed, a sizable percentage of the male college graduates report the same motivation to gain greater balance in life.

Between 1970 and 2009, women went from holding 37% of all jobs to nearly 48%. That’s almost 38 million more women. Without them, our economy would be 25% smaller today—an amount equal to the combined GDP of Illinois, California and New York.

GDP growth is driven by two factors—an expanding workforce and rising productivity. Back in the 1970s when women and a huge cohort of baby boomer men were entering the workforce, 65% of GDP growth arose from workforce expansion. Today, nearly 80% of growth is related to productivity increases, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI).

To sustain the historic rate of GDP growth of approximately 3% and maintain the United States’ leadership in the global economy, MGI reports that the nation will need a combination of some workforce expansion and a burst of productivity—driven by innovation and operational improvements. Women are critical to both of these forms of growth:

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