Empowering tomorrow: building a pipeline of future women leaders

International Women’s Day is a time for reflection on the progress made in fostering gender equality in the workplace, but it is also a time for organizations to recognize the work that still lies ahead. One crucial avenue for empowering women and enhancing their representation in leadership roles is building a robust pipeline of future women leaders and addressing the ongoing challenges they face in reaching leadership positions within corporate settings.

Despite various initiatives, including one from the UK Government for FTSE companies to increase their Board and Leadership gender representation to a minimum of 40% by 2025 and a good deal of effort from many businesses to hire more senior women, their representation in executive roles remains disproportionately low.

According to McKinsey and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report, women directors are leaving their roles at record rates, citing microaggressions, unrecognized work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and difficulties in progressing to senior-level roles as key reasons. However, by proactively recruiting and nurturing them in various C-Suite and senior roles, companies can pave the way for a more inclusive and diverse leadership landscape, going some way to reduce this attrition rate and ensuring the numbers will only grow.

A strategic approach involves cultivating a diverse pool of talent throughout the organization, creating a pipeline that nurtures and develops the leadership potential of women at every stage of their careers. While the ultimate goal is to see more women occupying CEO positions, the journey can begin by focusing on a broader spectrum of leadership roles. Companies can actively seek out and recruit women for C-Suite positions, such as Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operations Officer, or Chief Marketing Officer. By doing so, companies can not only leverage the diverse skill sets and perspectives that they bring to these roles but also set the stage for a more equitable distribution of leadership responsibilities and a more equal succession trajectory.

Beyond this, however, there should be a wider shift in mindset concerning succession paths to CEO. Currently, roles such as Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and Chief Operating Officers (COOs) are often considered the next in line for top leadership positions, and these roles are predominantly occupied by men. Leadership qualities often attributed to women, and more commonly women-led roles such as CHROs and CMOs, do not appear as valued in business as the male leadership qualities and roles. This must change, alongside the building of a pipeline where roles with higher representation of women have a natural progression to CEO level.

But to ensure the success of this pipeline, it is crucial to invest in leadership development for women across all levels of the organization. Our sister company, INvolve, helps with mentorship and an emerging leaders program that can be tailored to the unique challenges they face in the workplace. As part of these initiatives, women should also be encouraged to embrace their lived experiences: the fact that they may have had to overcome biases will have helped them gain the skills to adapt to new environments and will also stand them in good stead to act as strong and empathetic leaders to others.

Fostering an inclusive environment that encourages women to take on leadership roles and providing opportunities for them to showcase their abilities are critical components of this development process. Yet this is not a once-and-done exercise – organizations should also consider how they would be supporting a woman CEO when they get to that stage. The scrutiny and additional pressure that female CEOs face can be daunting, and companies and boards must provide unwavering support, creating an environment where women leaders can thrive.

Building a pipeline of women leaders is not just a commitment to gender equality; it is a strategic move that pays dividends for the entire organization. Diverse leadership brings a variety of viewpoints, enhances innovation, improves decision-making, and creates a workplace that truly reflects the diverse world we live in. Put simply, by investing in cultivating the next generation of women leaders, we are sowing the seeds for a more equitable and prosperous future.