Creating Our Own Glass Ceiling

Creating Our Own Glass Ceiling

This article is written by Dr. Angeline Lim & Dr. James Eyring

Many companies want to increase the number of women in leadership positions to better reflect the makeup of their consumers or of their own workforce. Although the educational level and labour force participation rates of women are increasing, companies still have difficulty finding talented women at a senior leadership level. Why is there a gap at this level? What can we learn by looking at management teams in Asia?

To understand more, we asked about the leadership composition of over 60 global, regional, and country (mostly China, India, and Japan) leadership teams in Asia. We asked about who was on the team today and about their plans to change team composition in future. This provided insight into leadership “bottlenecks” where companies were not achieving their goals. By looking at the best performing companies, we also gained insight into what is possible for companies to achieve despite their challenges.


Percentage of Women Consistently Low across Companies

We found that there is a relatively low percentage of women on leadership teams in Asia (see Figure 1). Whether they are at the country, regional, or global level, women comprise approximately 20 percent of the team. This means each team had an average of 2–3 women leaders. 

HR leaders we spoke with about this indicated that, often, women fill roles for support functions (e.g., legal, HR, and communications). Women were less likely to be found in research or in line roles (e.g., sales and marketing). 



Why do women consistently make up only 20 percent of leadership teams? Researchers and practitioners offer many reasons for a lack of women leaders, including:  women drop out of the workforce for their family; women juggle multiple roles outside of the workplace leading to a lack of focus on work as compared to men; and, glass ceilings at lower levels in the organisation prevent women from advancing to this level. Our findings indicate that other dynamics may also be at play.  

First, on average, company motivation to add more women to a senior leadership team seems to stop once they reach a certain level of representation. We asked all participating companies if they intended to increase the number of women leaders in the next 12 months. Companies that said “yes” had a current average representation of 14 percent women on their teams. Companies that said “no” had representation of 24 percent. See Figure 2.


We spoke to some of the participants about this, and they acknowledged that they had set goals to reach a 20 percent level of representation. Their intentions were positive—to increase representation. However, once they reached their target, their goal became a hindrance to adding more women in the future. In essence, their targets became a new glass ceiling.

Second, Asian companies were twice as likely to want to increase female representation on their leadership teams in the next 12 months as compared to Western companies (see Figure 3). This is despite similar gender composition in their leadership teams. A possible reason for this is the motivation behind the companies’ diversity policies and initiatives. When speaking with HR leaders in our learning communities, we discovered that many Western MNCs have diversity policies that are legislation-driven (e.g. gender floor targets), while Asian MNCs’ diversity policies tend to be market-driven.


Overall, while the general data pattern is disheartening, 10 percent of participating teams had 40 percent or greater representation of women on teams. If these companies can find women leadership talent beyond the average of 20 percent, why can’t other companies do so?


Recommendations to Increase Representation

Companies want more women leaders, but that is not translating into actions in the short term. The long term implications are even bleaker. If women are not being selected into leadership teams at a country level now, there will be a long term absence of them at the regional and global levels.

Below, we put together some recommendations for companies who are keen to increase women representation on their leadership teams.

  • Re-examine your goals. Don’t let your goals become a new glass ceiling. If you achieve your goals, increase them until you better reflect women in the workforce overall.
  • Look at your overall pipeline. If you do not have female representation at a region or country level, then look below this to find your bottleneck. Without understanding where the issue lies, you will not make much progress on representation at regional or global levels.
  • Question your mental models. Ten percent of participating companies had over 40 percent representation. This included country teams in China and Japan and one Asia regional leadership team. The talent pool may be tight, but some companies are succeeding.
  • Look at diversity science, not practice. Research shows that some practices (e.g., having a diversity committee) can help improve movement of women into leadership roles. However, not all diversity practices have impact. Make sure you understand the science of diversity, not just the practice.

To clarify, we are not saying that there is an ideal gender composition for leadership teams, or that having more women on leadership teams will make the team more effective. However, we believe there are multiple mandates to increase representation, including representing your marketplace and workforce, utilising all available talent for success, and a purely moral belief that women should be represented on senior leadership teams. Companies can achieve success, but have to make sure their own practices are not preventing progress. 

If you are interested in learning what research says about diversity, check out our Science & Practice sessions on:

  • Diversity: Delivering Results or Disastrous Efforts
  • Diversity Too: Why Gen Y?


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About the Authors:

Dr. Angeline Lim is a Senior Research Consultant at Organisation Solutions, a global consultancy specialising in organisational design, development, and change solutions worldwide. Angeline has more than 9 years of research experience in various fields, including leadership, diversity, culture, and interpersonal relations.

Dr. James Eyring is the Chief Operating Officer of Organisation Solutions, a global consultancy specialising in organisational design, development, and change solutions worldwide. James has more than 20 years of experience in the field of Organisational Development and his areas of expertise lie in large-scale organisation design and change, leadership development, and the design and management of distributed organisations.

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