Equally Effective, Unequally Represented: Why Is The Leadership Gender Gap Still So Large?

DEILeadership StrategiesChief Executive OfficersCEO Succession
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November 17, 2023
5 min read
DEILeadership StrategiesChief Executive OfficersCEO Succession
Men and women leaders are viewed as equally effective by direct reports—with a few notable exceptions. So why are men still promoted more?
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While it’s been well-studied that diverse teams are more resilient, innovative, and experience better financial performance1, there are still significant gaps between women’s and men’s representation at the leadership level.


Resiliency: The ability to anticipate and withstand unpredictable challenges and emerge stronger from them.

Russell Reynolds Associates wanted to better understand the leadership capabilities and practices that impact this resiliency. Via our H1 2023 Global Leadership Monitor, which reaches 1,500+ leaders worldwide, we determined that these five levers differentiate resilient organizations from less resilient ones:

five levers differentiate

We then examined the differences between how men and women leaders were perceived on these levers by their direct reports. Overall, we found no significant perception differences between men and women leaders.

The one exception? Women leaders are outperforming their male counterparts in coaching and development.

Yet women’s presence at the leadership level remains abysmal, as men are 2.5x more likely than women to be executives in S&P 100’s top leadership teams. Closing this gap is not about asking women to change; our research finds they are performing alongside (or sometimes even outperforming) their male counterparts. Instead, it requires fixing the systemic barriers to achieve a more stable, profitable, and resilient future for all leaders and their organizations.


Minimal differences in how men and women leaders are perceived by direct reports—with one exception

Women and men leaders are perceived similarly by their direct reports, falling within six percentage points across four of the five resiliency levers. (It’s worth noting that, while the differences on these four levers aren’t significant, women are viewed slightly more favorably than their male counterparts across all of them.)

Across the three leadership competencies—creating value through others, navigating uncertainty, and enabling change & innovation—there is no meaningful difference between men and women. However, in the construct that matters most for retention and career progression—coaching and development—women leaders are viewed significantly more positively than men.


Figure 1: % of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at…

% of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at…

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates’ H1 2023 Global Leadership Monitor, n = 779 total (Women = 163, Men = 616) C-suite and next-generation leaders


Women leaders are outperforming men on coaching and developing direct reports

Women managers were rated 10 percentage points higher than their male counterparts (55% vs. 45%) on coaching and development practices (Figure 1). Critically, this gap widens when we account for the gender of the person being managed. Women who report to women are most likely to see their manager as effective at coaching and development (57%), while notably fewer women (46%) who report to men feel the same. Women managers are also perceived more positively by the men they manage, as 52% of men with women managers rate them as effective at coaching and development, compared to only 43% of men who are managed by men (Figure 2).


Figure 2: % of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at overall coaching & development (by direct report/manager gender pairings)

% of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at overall coaching & development (by direct report/manager gender pairings)

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates’ H1 2023 Global Leadership Monitor, n = 779 total (W2W = 75, W2M = 183, M2W = 88, M2M = 433) C-suite and next-generation leaders


Coaching and development effectiveness encompasses a range of activities (detailed in Figure 3). On every one of these activities, women managed by women report the highest levels of effectiveness.

On the activities that create the most career opportunities and require active engagement by one’s manager—creating development opportunities for me in my work, nominating me for meaningful stretch assignments, and advocating for me by highlighting my work and impact with other leaders—we note some important distinctions between men and women’s views on their manager’s effectiveness. Men view their managers’ effectiveness consistently, regardless of gender. However, women leaders report significant gaps between men and women manager’s efficacy on these same measures. This suggests that, for men, their manager’s gender has less impact on how they view their career progression; for women, it makes a big difference.

It’s worth noting that all the individual coaching and development activity scores are low, regardless of gender. This points to a larger question: are senior leaders focused enough on enabling and developing their team members?


Figure 3: % of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at individual coaching & development activities (by direct report/manager gender pairings)

% of leaders who agree that their direct manager is effective at individual coaching & development activities (by direct report/manager gender pairings)

Source: Russell Reynolds Associates’ H1 2023 Global Leadership Monitor, n = 779 total (W2W = 75, W2M = 183, M2W = 88, M2M = 433) C-suite and next-generation leaders


This matters for retention, which heavily impacts organizational resiliency. Our 2023 Monitor found that leaders who do not receive effective coaching and development opportunities from their direct managers are 6.5 times more likely to say they would leave their organization. As such, knowing if and where gaps in advocacy and career development are occurring is crucial for organizational health. And while women leaders are doing a better job of coaching other women to the top alongside them, there are simply too few women in top roles for organizations to depend on their mentorship as a comprehensive method for next generation leadership development.


The link between women leader’s representation, coaching & development, and organizational resiliency

While the similarities between men and women’s leadership abilities might initially seem like an unrevealing story, when paired with the huge differences in men and women’s representation, it paints a more nuanced, troubling picture. If both populations are equally capable leaders, yet one makes their way to the top 2.5x more than the other—and 10x+ more often to the CEO role—it does not logically follow that decisions about who gets promoted are based solely on merit.

Recognizing bias is not enough; organizations also need to understand that women are operating in a work environment that was not designed for them. For too long, organizations have viewed leadership through too narrow an aperture. This, alongside all the other roles women hold (both within and outside of the workforce), has created more barriers for women leaders to overcome, which makes them more dependent on the advocacy of their manager. And the top two reasons women in the C-suite left their roles last year? A desire to feel more valued and seeking a different type of leadership.



Women are more likely to be overlooked for opportunities; moreover, they have not historically benefited from internal advocacy and actively created development opportunities, which are hugely important to career advancement. Having a manager who does this – whether a man or a woman – is vital to changing how we think about women leaders.”

Hetty Pye
Russell Reynolds Associates


These structural issues won’t be fixed by asking women to change. Instead, shifting the organizational paradigm to embrace women’s perspectives and experiences—while also investing in these next-generation leaders—will bring more parity to the pipeline. The argument for diverse leadership teams goes beyond our finding that women are equally capable of holding the top job. Leadership homogeneity dulls our understanding of the world. Improving your leadership team’s diversity enhances its collective understanding of all the stakeholders it serves, leading to long-term organizational resiliency, stability, and success.


Improving resiliency via increased leadership gender diversity

For the good of business, society, and the planet, we need more equitable, balanced leadership. This requires collective mentorship, more expansive succession planning, and a new leadership paradigm that is fit for the challenges of the future. To accomplish this, organizations can:

Assess for potential, not experience

Instead of presenting leadership roles as inflexible molds that leaders must squeeze into, what if we reframed growth opportunities by asking, "What would need to be true for you to take this job?" While assessing potential is key to overcoming the established imbalance, it is also essential to finding leaders with the potential to find novel solutions, rather than using what has worked in the past.

When considering succession planning, allow leaders to opt-out, rather waiting for them to actively opt-in

While men are more likely to believe they are qualified for leadership roles, women often need to be asked, as they tend to undervalue their own skills for myriad reasons. When all qualified applicants are in the running for leadership positions, the gender gap narrows. Allowing leaders to opt-out of the running, rather than asking them to force their way in, sends the message that everyone is qualified and under consideration for top positions.

Supercharge development for emerging leaders

After identifying high-potential leaders, it’s important to develop them in the right way. HR and L&D teams should create programs that focus on building business exposure and experience. Pairing early potential assessments with business-focused development can help level the playing field for underrepresented groups who currently don’t get exposure to the experiences that lead to the C-suite and the boardroom.

Train the trainer

Organizations can’t rely on women leaders to do lion’s share of coaching and development work for next-generation leaders. Education and training for sponsors can help them connect deeply with those who don’t share their background by showing them how to practice courage, vulnerability, and curiosity. And the benefits of inclusive sponsorship go beyond underrepresented leaders; sponsors also gain personally and professionally by showing their commitment to investing in their organization’s future leaders.

Consider external development programs to address any leadership competency gaps

Sometimes, internal mentorship and advocacy is not enough to expose next-generation leaders to the range of experience required to progress to the next level. When this happens, consider investing in external development programs for all leaders, including women. This allows them to network with their peers, gain new understanding that benefits both them and the business, and shows top performers that their organization is willing to invest in them for the long haul.


External References

  1. Katie Abouzahr, Matt Krentz, Rocio Lorenzo, Miki Tsusaka, Nicole Voigt, “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation.” Boston Consulting Group.
  2. Arianne Cohen, “Women in Leadership: Recruiting to Close the Gender Gap,” Bloomberg, April 5, 2022.



Leah Christianson and Tom Handcock of RRA’s Center for Leadership Insight conducted the analysis and authored this report.