Declining rates of women appointed to leadership positions: A worrisome trend

Access to leadership positions for women has always been a significant challenge, despite notable progress over the decades. As the struggle for gender equality in the workplace persists, recent trends indicate a worrying decline in the appointment of women to leadership positions since 2023, following a rebound in 2022. This analysis is based on a LinkedIn study, which reveals intriguing data regarding the presence of women in top corporate roles.

Known obstacles to accessing leadership positions

It is well known that women have long faced structural and cultural barriers that hinder their progression to leadership roles. Among these obstacles, several key factors can be highlighted:

  1. Gender stereotypes: Persistent stereotypes about gender roles influence perceptions of women’s abilities to assume leadership roles.
  2. Double burden: The responsibility of household and family duties still heavily falls on women, limiting their availability and flexibility for demanding roles in terms of time and travel.
  3. Networks and sponsorship: Professional networks play a crucial role in career advancement. Women often have less access to male-dominated power networks and benefit less from mentorship and sponsorship, which are essential for reaching leadership positions.
  4. Unconscious bias: Even with equal opportunity policies, unconscious biases continue to influence recruitment and promotion processes. Decision-makers may, unknowingly, favor male candidates for leadership roles.

To overcome these obstacles, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, former World Bank economist and chief of staff to the head of the U.S. Treasury Department, has some advice for all women leaders.

  • Sit at the table. Don’t hide on the sidelines at work—literally or figuratively. Studies show that women systematically underestimate their abilities.
    Though it may feel counter-intuitive, place yourself in a visible place where you can see, be seen and participate in the action.
  • Make your partner a real partner. While women don’t lead enough businesses, we’ve made more advances at work than at home: Today, in families with two working parents, women still perform twice as much housework and three times as much childcare as men. 
    “We have to make it as important a job to work inside the home—for both genders—if we’re going to even things out and get women to stay in the workforce.”
  • Don’t leave before you leave. From the moment a woman starts thinking about having a child, she “stops raising her hand” to take on initiatives and responsibilities that lead to promotion, says Sandberg. Her advice? “Don’t leave before you leave. Stay in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal until the very day you need to leave to take care of a child—and then make your decisions. Don’t make decisions too far in advance.”

Revealing data

LinkedIn, drawing on the profiles of one billion members on the platform between 2016 and 2023, highlights a worrying trend. This trend is evident both in France and internationally, despite women often possessing the most sought-after “soft skills” in the professional world.

Key figures: Proportion of women in leadership positions

  • France: 34.3%
  • Global: 31.7%
  • Germany: 23.3%
  • Spain : 29,8%
  • Finland: 47.2%

In France, women represent 34.3% of leadership positions, a proportion slightly above the global average of 31.7%. However, countries like Germany and Spain lag significantly, with only 23.3% and 29.8% of women in leadership positions, while Finland stands out with 47.2%.

The LinkedIn study also highlights sectoral disparities. For example, in healthcare, 68% of the total workforce are women, but only 50% hold leadership positions. In administration, 55% of the total workforce are women, compared to 42% in leadership roles.

These figures reveal an underrepresentation of women in leadership positions, even in sectors where they constitute the majority of the workforce.

Finally, let’s take a zany example from the United States. In 2023, with 10 new female CEOs joining companies in the S&P 500 index, women are now finally outnumbering CEOs with the first name ‘John’.
Only eight percent of CEO positions in the S&P 500 are held by women, and yet they represent more than 50 percent of the United States’ population. In contrast, men named John represent only 3.27 percent of the United States’ population, and until recently, had greater representation than women among S&P 500 CEOs.

Analysis and prospects for 2024

LinkedIn data suggests that this decline in the appointment of women to leadership positions is likely to continue into 2024. Several factors could explain this trend:

  • Return of post-COVID biases: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities, with a disproportionate impact on women’s careers. Increased family responsibilities and professional stress have led many women to reduce their engagement or leave the workforce, negatively impacting their path to leadership positions.
  • Resilience of patriarchal structures: Male-dominated organizational structures and corporate cultures remain resistant to change, limiting opportunities for women to access leadership roles.
  • Lack of development programs: The lack of effective mentorship and career development programs for women in companies continues to hinder their professional advancement.

While the LinkedIn study highlights a troubling trend, it is clear that despite their significant presence in several sectors, women continue to face major obstacles to accessing top positions.

To reverse this trend, it is crucial for our society to strengthen equal opportunity policies, actively promote mentorship and sponsorship, raise awareness among executive committees, and combat unconscious biases in the recruitment and promotion processes of women. Only a proactive and sustained approach will ensure a balanced gender representation in leadership positions in the future.