These companies are making sure more women get promoted to management

Women tend to drop off the leadership track about 7-10 years into their careers. These companies are making sure they stay.

These companies are making sure more women get promoted to management
[Photo: Christina Morillo/Pexels]

Patricia Clarke was looking at data come to life when she took stock of her workforce–and it wasn’t good. As chief talent officer for Havas Group, Clarke observed that among its 20,000 workers, female representation was dwindling higher up the corporate ladder.


“We had a lot of women in our business progressing from entry level to mid-level manager,” Clarke explains, “But we saw a slowdown [from] senior director promoted up to the first rank of executives.”

The most recent report from and McKinsey bore this out on a larger scale. It revealed that women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and even less likely to be promoted into them. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 79 women receive those promotions. This is why men end up holding 62% of manager positions, while women hold only 38%.  Further findings in the report indicate that if promotions and hires continue at this rate, the number of women in management will increase by just 1% over the next decade.

Yet making the business case for diversity has never been simpler. Many studies have pointed to the economic benefits of having more women advance to leadership. Most recently, a global study from DDI, the Conference Board, and EY found that companies with greater gender diversity are twice as likely to have their leaders work together to create new solutions and opportunities, 1.5 times more likely to work across an organization’s silos and exhibit a growth culture, and 1.7 times more likely to have strong leadership. Overall, the study revealed, gender diversity contributed to these companies being 1.4 times more likely to have sustained profitable growth.

At Havas, Clarke says, the awareness of the benefits of diversity was a major factor in taking a closer look at why women were dropping off the leadership track. Internal research and external data suggested that big changes were going on for women about seven to nine years into their careers. “A lot of women might see having a change in family life,” Clarke explains, or “they would be pleased with their role but not be aspirational.” Clarke says, “They were hard on themselves,” which made for a self-confidence gap along with the ambition gap. Sometimes though, she admits that outright bias was also in play.

The solution would need to be as complex as the many reasons that played into women being held back. “We wanted to tackle it in a way that was holistic,” she maintains. And it had to go beyond just some basic training seminars or workshops.


After extensive research and development, they launched Femmes Forward to advance women’s roles within the Havas and Vivendi networks in January 2018. It is a comprehensive learning program mix of skills-based training modules, professional leadership assessments, inspiration from internal and external thought leaders, group coaching, and networking with senior level sponsors that spans months with a “commitment circle” at the end to wrap things up and give the participants a solid goal to take with them.

Clarke says there are between 20 to 25 participants per cohort and they are chosen from among those at that crucial seven- to eight-year experience level where many drop off. They are high performers who are responsible for a team and are open to learning and development opportunities, both educational and inspirational, she says.

Each participant is assessed with Lumina Spark which is a psychometric profile tool before they move on to cover such topics as negotiation skills, having difficult conversations, conflict resolution, and leading with conviction and resilience, among others.

The Critical Enthusiasm Gap

Support from within the company (from both male and female employees) is crucial to making these programs work. A survey by FTI Consulting and Mine The Gap that polled 4,764 professional women and 1,030 professional men in the industries of technology, finance, legal, energy, and health care found a critical enthusiasm gap for initiatives like provide executive and leadership coaching to senior‐level women and establishing and funding formal career progression plans including sponsorship programs for women to keep them engaged. On the programs, 74% of women and 64% of men thought they were important, but when it came to ranking the importance of funding training, etc., 74% of women and 59% of men found it important.

That gap in support can make or break a program’s success. However, other factors can play into whether these efforts to develop female leaders have a sustainable impact. Fast Company spoke to other organizations who have put programs like this into place. LinkedIn, for instance, had the Women in Tech (WIT) Empower initiative, which was led by Kamini Dandapani back in 2014. “We organized many different kinds of events, such as external guest speakers, leadership workshops, and speed mentoring,” Dandapani wrote at the time. But she confessed that even though the support from senior leadership was there and the amount of time and resources that were poured into it, “this program, did not succeed to the level we had expected.” She said that was because the events weren’t part of a single overarching program, and ultimately didn’t have “the long-lasting and actionable impact on the participants that we wanted.”


After regrouping to get feedback and do more research, LinkedIn created WIT Invest in 2016. This is an ongoing four-month program that focuses on accelerating the growth of women in engineering, operations, and product at LinkedIn. Their applications are blind (meaning their names have been removed to eliminate any bias). As Dandapani put it, “The program focuses on providing consistent opportunities–from networking meetings, mentor check-ins, and executive coaching sessions–for participants to regularly focus on transforming themselves and their careers.

Bank of America’s (BoA) Women’s Executive Development Program underwent a similar transformation. It began as a one week, in‐person event in 2010, but was expanded in 2016 to a 10‐month experience including assessments, in‐person, and ongoing virtual development sessions, executive sponsorship and local market engagement opportunities to advance the careers of female participants. BoA’s Womens’ Next Level Leadership Program is an eight‐month virtual development experience focused on the unique challenges multicultural women face in progressing their careers, piloted in 2016, and rolled out to 170 participants in 2017.

“From our 2017 class, 100% of participants agreed that the program was a valuable use of their time and 96% indicated they would be able to apply what they learned to achieve their career goals,” says Sheri Bronstein, BoA’s global Human Resources executive. Currently, women make up more than 50% of its global workforce, more than 40% of its managers, and more than 40% of its global management team.

For its part, IBM has a long history of programming to develop female and underrepresented minority leaders. For example, its three-year-old Elevate for Tech initiative helps high-potential women win critical stretch assignments through an intensive leadership program. “Female middle managers in sales, consulting, and technical jobs who deal directly with customers especially in artificial intelligence and cloud computing are prepared for executive roles in these new business areas which represent an important piece of our transformation,” says IBM’s Global Diversity Leader for Women Heather Stam. “Participants in the one-year program devise both their personalized development plan and leadership plan, with help from their managers,” she adds, “They also get the chance to shadow executives, among other activities.”

But what about the results?

Yet Karen Jaw-Madson, management consultant and author of Culture Your Culture cautions, “Like all leadership development programs, but especially with those targeted toward women and other underrepresented groups, success is defined by meaningful results.” She says that doesn’t just refer to the quality of the content or learning experience (though they are also important). “Measurement of impact should extend to whether and how these programs ultimately contribute to the development and career growth of the program participants,” Jaw-Madson explains, “It includes promotions as well as mitigating the risk of what’s been called the glass cliff.”


Clarke says that even though Femmes Forward is just a year old (and it has a current cohort still in progress) the first with 14 participants has seen eight promoted (57%), the second has promoted 36% of its 18 participants and two have already been promoted of the current group.

More importantly, many of these women stay with the company. Dandapani maintains that WIT Invest is “a powerful retention tool for the LinkedIn’s top talent in R&D.” The attrition rate for the majority of past cohort participants is consistently at 4%.

“Our retention rates at IBM are better than average,” contends Stam, although she declined to give exact figures. According to the National Council for Women in Technology, women report “loving their work” yet 56% leave their organizations at the mid-level points (10-20 years) in their careers. In the high tech industry, the quit rate is more than twice as high for women (41%) than it is for men (17%).

But these women leaders are rarely visible to those outside their companies, despite their high profile within the organization. That’s why Bloomberg started a completely different program aimed at getting more women in front of the general public. In Bloomberg’s “New Voices” initiative, its news team provides intensive one-on-one media training for top women executives in finance and business with the goal of getting the women TV-ready for interviews on Bloomberg TV and other outside outlets. This program is being expanded from New York, London, Toronto, and Hong Kong to Sydney, Mumbai, Dubai, and San Francisco.

According to the company’s data, Bloomberg News’s global database of women experts has quadrupled this year to more than 2,300 names and the percentage of women guests brought in as expert commentators on Bloomberg TV has climbed to 18%, up from 10% at the start of 2018. The percentage of stories that quote or cite a woman expert on Bloomberg’s front pages has increased to almost 10% from about 2.5% in March of 2018 and is growing at an average pace of 13% a week.


Ultimately, says Clarke, these programs are essential to any company, not just hers. At Havas, Clarke says, “Our businesses and our clients need [female talent] and it’s an investment in these people to continue to grow and be amazing contributors.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.