How Can We Close the Leadership Gender Gap for Women?

4 min read | Kelly Primus


How can we close the leadership gender gap for women? That’s the million-dollar question. Organizations continue to struggle to move women from manager-level into director-level positions, and even more so, from director-level into vice president level and above. Why?

As a female CEO of a company whose mission is to support and guide organizations in building inclusive cultures with more women leaders, I get asked this question by many of our clients. We have organizations in almost every industry approach us with this struggle. What we tell them is that our research shows there are very distinct leadership competencies and skills that women need to be demonstrating at both of these critical points in their career to be seen as ready to move to the next level. Unfortunately, most women are not mentored on this or given this career advice.

This research about the critical competencies used to identify and select executives focuses on achieving outcomes and include business, strategic and financial acumen. At Leading NOW, we call this “The Missing 33%®” of the career success equation, which is grounded by our 21st-century definition of leadership: “Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others.”

The research further shows that traditional advice to women ignores the importance of business, strategic and financial acumen, while male counterparts are advised to learn these skills early on in their career. I can’t stress enough how critical these skills are to a woman’s career trajectory and success.

In order for women to be seen as business leaders, not just leaders of teams or functional areas, but leading business or business units, there are 9 Critical Differentiators™ that must be mastered in order to move into senior and executive positions. To move beyond middle management, women need to ramp up their skills and demonstrate their knowledge of the business to get to the next level.

Here are the 9 Critical Differentiators™ for career success that can be used to help train and develop women leaders:

  1. Hone your business acumen by putting yourself in the CEO’s shoes. In other words, think like a CEO! Align your work with achieving the key business outcomes for your organization and show how your contributions and successful results distinguish you from other candidates for advancement.

  2. Finance is integral to any organization and you must understand how your role and your team contribute to your organization’s performance.

  3. Your ability to engage your team to deliver results is critical. Interactions with direct reports to align their work to the organization’s goals can be accelerated through feedback and performance assessments.

  4. Inspire confidence through your executive presence. You must be able to command the attention of leaders when presenting thoughts, plans and ideas for your business.

  5. Understand the critical elements to running a business. Many women are not mentored on the basics of how to run a business, which is the foundation for delivering successful outcomes for the organization.

  6. Successful leaders, including women, receive and give PIE mentoring (with PIE standing for performance, image and exposure). Understand the difference between CAKE mentoring, which is supportive — CAKE stands for confidence, aptitude and attitude, konnection (sic) to resources and encouragement — and PIE mentoring, which is strategic.

  7. Understand how to break down the organization’s strategy to identify its core elements and then align the elements with your team’s work and performance measurements.

  8. Build strategic relationships across your industry to support the performance of your business. Women are good at networking, but must learn to leverage those relationships to benefit their own career or their organization.

  9. Demonstrate the knowledge of your business by utilizing the language of business. You must be able to speak the language of outcomes to be able to communicate effectively with senior leaders, executives and board members.

For those women who want to be seen as future leaders by their managers, they must make sure they are learning and demonstrating the above nine critical skills and competencies. Only then will they be seen as future executives of their organization and land the roles they deserve. These differentiators hold the key to women achieving success at the highest levels.

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Training Industry LogoThis article was originally written for Training Industry and published on their website May 2024.