More women graduate from college than men, and they’ve been doing so for quite awhile. Since 1991, a greater share of women ages 25 to 29 have held a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with men the same age. The gap has continued to widen.

But even though women are now more educated, there remains a major gap between men and women in senior management positions. Only about 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, according to the Pew Research Center. They make up 17 percent of corporate board members among Fortune 500 companies.

female ceo growth

Lareina Yee, a principal for global management consulting firm McKinsey, recently set out five questions that company CEOs can ask to determine if they’re developing or holding back women leaders.

“At the very least, these questions can help generate the kinds of challenging conversations that executive teams around the world should be having,” she wrote.

Where are the women in the leadership pipeline?
Company executives most likely know how many women are in leadership roles in their organization, but do they know who is in the talent pipeline? How are men and women being retained and promoted?

Also, how are women distributed throughout the company? As Yee wrote, about two-thirds of women in Fortune 500 companies start out in line roles, not support-staff roles. But at the top, about two-thirds of women occupy human resources, marketing or other support positions.

How is the company working to improve women’s skills?
What are some skills women need to thrive in leadership positions? Most often, it’s resilience, grit and determination — the ability to fight through challenges. While many women’s programs encourage broadening networks, it takes more than that.

Research shows “that students are more successful when they are praised and recognized for their contributions, hard work, practice, and effort — in short, for a mind-set of growth. Such a mind-set is valuable in corporate environments too, for it suggests that women can shape (and reshape) their own advancement and success,” Yee wrote.

It also means companies can motivate their employees in ways that encourage resilience.

Is the company providing not just role models but sponsors?
It’s true that female role models matter greatly in inspiring younger women. They can shape the way younger women perceive what their future could hold. Sponsors, however, take a more active role in motivating young women and opening up opportunities for them.

Women can serve as powerful sponsors and share their own stories of success, but male leaders have a particular role to play. “In fact, it is one of the most basic commitments male leaders can make to help increase the number of talented women in their organizations. A simple question to ask men in senior roles is this: How many of you sponsor at least one woman?” Yee wrote.

She used the example of eBay to illustrate her point. Senior vice presidents and vice presidents there aimed to develop the skills of talented women by sponsoring five of them. These efforts and others led to 30 percent more women in leadership positions each year between 2011 and 2013.

Is the company addressing unconscious bias?
Biases are held by men and women alike, and they take many forms, including overlooking quieter employees in meetings and having higher-ups promote employees just like them. Companies have overcome these biases by instituting trainings, gauging what’s happening with surveys, and instituting specific practices to act as counterbalances.

What policies are helping?
This question gets at the need to measure results. If the company has a flexible work policy, but very few employees take advantage of it, is it really working?

How does a company deal with child leave policies? Some companies have raised the number of weeks they offer for maternity leave, while others publicly emphasize their paternity leave policies.

In one workshop Yee attended, she said, “the highest-rated recommendation was to make paternity leave mandatory for men so that they could more fully take part in raising kids and reduce the perception that child care is a ‘women’s issue.’ Such ideas are intriguing, as they suggest tangible ways a company’s policies can affect the mind-sets of employees.”

Avatar photo

Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...