Survey: 70% of Businesses Don’t Have a Strategy for Developing Women

Does your organization focus on women when they talk about having a more diverse workforce?

Some do, of course, but the vast majority of businesses — 70 percent — say they don’t have a strategy for developing women leaders, according to a new survey by global consulting giant Mercer.

The Women’s Leadership Development Survey, conducted in September by Mercer in conjunction with Talent Management and Diversity Management magazines, surveyed human resource, talent management, and diversity leaders at a broad cross-section of more than 540 organizations throughout the U.S.

Majority don’t offer programs targeted to women

According to the survey:

  • 43 percent of the employers say that their organization does not offer any activities or programs targeted to the needs of women leaders;
  • 23 percent said their company offers some activities or programs for women;
  • 19 percent said their organization’s approach to the development of women leaders is simply “to track and monitor progress only.”
  • Just 5 percent said they currently provide a robust program for women, while 4 percent say they “plan to add programs and activities in the future.”

As bad as those numbers sound, this sounds even worse: When asked how well their organizational climate supports the development of women, 43 percent of respondents said “to a moderate extent,” while only 27 percent said “to a great extent,” 21 percent said “to a small extent” and 7 percent said it is not supported at all.

Yes, training and development programs everywhere have been slashed during all the cost cutting surrounding the Great Recession, but even given that, these numbers are pretty surprising because it shows a huge regression in most organizational efforts to develop their female workforce.

“A few decades ago, many organizations offered specific programs and activities to support women as they advanced into management and leadership roles,” said Colleen O’Neill, Ph.D., a Senior Partner in Mercer’s human capital consulting business, in a press release accompyaning the survey.

“Today, as our survey shows, there’s less certainty about what’s appropriate and what’s effective with respect to women’s leadership development. Additionally, when companies do take steps to support women, they often focus narrowly on tactics like flexible work schedules. That may be a good starting point, but it’s certainly not a complete solution.”

Article Continues Below

Top factors preventing women from advancement

The survey also asked about the top three factors “preventing women in their organizations’ leadership talent pools from advancing to the next level.” The leading response, from among 13 choices, was lack of an executive sponsor (43 percent), followed by insufficient breadth of experience (36 percent) and work-life balance (31 percent).

Similarly, survey respondents said that the biggest challenges women face regarding their development as leaders within the organization “pertain to lack of role models, lack of opportunities for career advancement and lack of support from upper management. And while their organizations may not have expressed significant concern around women’s leadership development, many respondents indicated their own desire to improve the effectiveness of their programs through actions such as developing formal mentoring/coaching programs for women leaders, identifying high-potential leaders early in their careers, and promoting greater awareness of women’s leadership development at the board and executive level.”

All of that sounds good, but the overall numbers tell the real story — organizations are not really as focused on developing women as they sometimes like to think they are.

“Most respondents seemed to feel strongly that their organizations should pay greater attention to this issue,” Mercer’s Dr. O’Neill said. “Some, however, were adamant that women be treated no differently than men from a leadership development perspective.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


8 Comments on “Survey: 70% of Businesses Don’t Have a Strategy for Developing Women

  1. Conversely, organizations are struggling to create more family-friendly flexibility for men who want to stay at home more with the children (whether by choice and/or because of layoffs) while more of their spouses are entering and developing in the workplace. Incremental changes will lead to watersheds.

  2. John,

    I’m not sure I’m onboard with the targeted program thing. Does not having programs “targeted” at women really mean women don’t have leadership programs to take advantage of?

    I don’t want to trivialize the glass ceiling thing, but I also don’t think it’s fair to imply organizations are missing something either.

    The advancement of women in a workplace is about organizational culture – not training programs.

    – Chris

    1. Chris — I only have access to the executive summary of the survey, and I don’t completely understand the “targeted” programs issue either. But I am completely with you on the point that this is really about organizational culture more than anything else.

      Training programs are nice, but the problem with them is that they can become a crutch for organizations who put them in place and then think they are covered.

      Developing women comes from an organizational commitment from the top. What I took away from the survey is that all too many companies don’t really have that commitment. A sad state of affairs as we approach the second decade of the 21st Century.


  3. Show me a C-level executive with 50% (or commitment to 50%) women on their team, and there is no issue. There are great examples in high performing companies.

  4. This is sad because people are people, not matter what position they take. There are some gender issues that can benefit from having a same sex gender mentor, but leadership skills aren’t only for men. Look for good people and invest in them, no matter what!

  5. This is interesting, but it begs the question: why are things taking so long to change? I think there are two potential reasons:

    The senior exec don’t realise that diversity reports can fail to tell the whole story. Clients often tell us: “We have a large female population, internal recruitment which is open to all and intranet sites which offer first class training and learning journeys which again is open to all”. All very reasonable but the reality is that, when interviewed, male leaders admitted to being surprised when certain female team members hadn’t applied for a promotion. When pressed, they also admit to not personally ‘tapping them on the shoulder’ to show their support. Conversely, most also admitted to having had off-the-record conversations with male team members.

    The second reason for the lack of change could be found in research into organisational politics. Recent studies on power and politics in organisations show a clear difference in attitude between men and women; where women see politics as unnecessary because one’s work should speak for itself and men generally view politics as ‘game-playing’ and fun. This difference in attitude could be the reason for the very different behaviours displayed between the two genders.

    Until organisational politics is dealt with in a more overt way we are unlikely to see any great change. What senior leaders should consider in the mean time is what support could be offered to help women ‘muddle’ through the unwritten rules and politics in their organisation. They could create avenues for women to gain exposure e.g. women’s networks with senior sponsorship, mentoring programmes, peer coaching, as well as soft skills programmes around confidence and making a positive impact through exposure.

  6. reality well stated. businesses though state that they are becoming aware of the role that women can play in the organizations, not sure how many actually have a solid program to back this. Here is an instance of Vineet Nayar from India who is attempting to profile the women leaders in his organization. But it will be worth asking him & the other women colleagues how much of an effort is the organization putting in rolling out a program to groom more women leaders.

    My guess is as good as yours.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *