The everlasting chicken or egg debate – why do we still see a gap of women holding leadership roles?

by Sabine Steiner in — March 2022
“We could not find any women for this role.” “There are no women on the market fulfilling this set of skills.” “This role is too demanding to do it on a part-time basis.” “We would really love to have a woman for this role, but...”
Women work

The chicken or egg problem describes the dilemma we face: Are there still too few women holding leadership roles? Is it owing to certain career phases or sectors, or is it due to the consistent exclusion of them in our consideration?

Today is International Women's Day (March 8th). Around the globe organizations and communities are celebrating the historical, cultural, and political achievements of women. Next to a load of workshops, debates, roundtable discussions, and facts & figures on the surface, we also witness a day of a commercial boost to shop discounts with no end.

If there is one TEDx Talk you should watch today, then let it be this one: Mahdis Gharaei, Co-CEO of ‘’the female factor’ discusses the largest pool of untapped talent, women.

She shares her own journey growing up between cultures, venturing into global leadership and creating a business with the mission to close the gender gap and support female talent.

We were curious and asked our Talentor partners around the world to measure the average ratio of women in leadership roles in their respective countries:


A rising trend in the number of female leaders can be seen, with 19% of our partners stating that the ratio is growing towards 40-50% of females leading in their country. Conversely, almost 40% of Talentor partners still see a somewhat lower percentage of approximately 20-30% female leaders. We have taken these results as an encouragement to actively contribute to source and approach more women in our shortlists and projects.

As a second step, we also asked our Talentor partners to reflect on the #1 challenge women face when reaching a leadership role.

Grafics women

7 Reasons why we still see a gender gap in the management teams around the world

1. High barriers to combining family and career

Vital career steps are commonly taken between your 30s and 40s, approximately 10 years in your corporate career. The timing is the same as growing your family. In many countries, women are fortunate to be secured by a maternity leave system. Consequently, this also means that career paths can be disrupted without a long-term strategy conversation taking place.

“We will see what role will come up when you are back…”, “you cannot lead the team part-time", etc. are common arguments we commonly hear a lot in the corporate space. The possibility of a long-term part-time role, combined with the option of care-leave would facilitate further career development while also being able to care for your family.

2. The word cloud above clearly indicates that the world of leadership is male-dominated.

If you google ‘people of leadership’, you will see that most images are of men in suits and ties standing in the front. Even in the year 2022. Most leadership roles are recruited through criteria such as:

  • Education
  • Experience in years
  • How long are you with the company?
  • Loyalty in years and if possible, no gaps in between
  • Fulltime and being part of ‘after work’ career talks are seen as advantages.
  • Sacrifices to grow your career every set amount of years

3. What does the ideal leader look like? Hello, stereotypes…

The pandemic shed a light on leadership skills that are rare and urgently needed: empathy, compassion and vulnerability. For decades those leadership skills were rather associated as ‘soft skills’ vs. those skills that create true leadership. Initiative, assertiveness and a dominant approach to a position are often adjectives associated to men. Perceptions about what leaders should have created a bias in hiring decisions. Organizations have created barriers when considering women as leaders and therefore, also miss an important chance to re-invent their leadership culture.

4. “Let’s assign Peter as CEO…”

We mostly tend to hire people that are similar to us. Coming from similar social contexts, with similar education stories, universities, views, and leadership types. When we employ like-minded candidates and see that hiring decisions are taken by board members almost only consisting of men, we end up having more CEOs named Peter in Austria, than women at all nominated as CEOs…

Early this year, women in leadership roles changed their names to Peter on LinkedIn to raise awareness of how male-dominated top-level decisions are.

5. Absent female role models

“If she can do it, I can do it as well”. Role models have the power to inspire us, and their stories create ideas that lead to other career paths than that what we are used to. The more women are in leadership roles; the more women can also identify and feel empowered to make unconventional careers conventional.

When it comes to economic decision-making and financial power, in other words the stuff that really counts, the sad reality is that women comprise a miniscule number of the top brass in the corporate world--only seven percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.

UNDP in the article shedding a light on the dramatic impacts of the pandemic on women empowerment

6. Bias against women

She is too…loud / assertive / bossy / tough / soft /…bias and prejudice is still in our heads. Cultures of male decision-making processes were created over centuries and thus bias is everywhere.

7. Missing self-confidence and courage

Studies show that women communicate their weaknesses around 20 times more often than their successes and strengths. It is obvious that we create a picture of missing self-confidence and courage many times ourselves.

Consultant Gianna Possehl interviewed by "Die Zeit"

The pandemic erodes 3 decades of women empowerment…

Every scientific research confirmed what we all feel: The global pandemic shed light on who took over caring roles, household chores, and homeschooling when we all needed to stay home…on top of juggling their jobs – many times late at night: women.

A study of BCG Germany stated that German parents dedicated 15h – which equals 2 days of work – for household chores, childcare, and homeschooling. The ratio was not equally divided between men and women at home: Women have been the only caregiver in most households. The responsibility had been three times higher than that of men at home. Estimates have been made and have evaluated that the pandemic has impacted a loss of 3 decades of women empowerment work.

Why do we need more women leading organizations…

Do women make different decisions? Yes.

Studies show that women lead differently and involve a broader set of perspectives in decisions – they also positively change the corporate culture and the company's success in the long run.

In a study of McMaster University in Canada, 600 top leaders were evaluated on how they took a decision and how their leadership behavior was influenced. Male candidates took decisions according to rules, procedures and discussions – sometimes also alone. The female pot explored a more collaborative and cooperative style. Stakeholder interests were also included and a major consideration to find an equal and fair solution.

We know for some time now, that companies with diverse board members create better results. Studies prove that having more women at the board level is not only the right decision in a political sense but also an economically smart step. If you have only a few or no women in management, your profit level and happiness of your shareholders will show that in the future.

Chris Bart, Professor for Strategic Management at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University

Here are further studies to read into and prove what we already know – and still miss in reality:

  • An increase of women at the management level leads to a 66% increase of your ROI (return on investment) and to 42% higher return on sales (Joy, 2007).
  • You only need one woman included in your top management team to decrease the risk of bankruptcy by 20% (Wilson, 2009).
  • In decision-making processes, women tend to ask more questions than taking the decision in a solo run (Konrad, 2008).
  • When women are represented at the management level, we reduce the risk of ‘traditional’ games of demonstrating power and decision-making authority (Singh, 2008).

What are specific initiatives companies can do to increase the women's ratio at the management level?

  • Culture, culture, culture…

As an organization, you need to create a culture that enables women to create career paths up to C-level. A culture promoting role models venturing into leadership roles, a culture of leading with curiosity and an open mind – from CEO down, and culture screening its own bias and working towards reducing any bias that prevents the creation of diverse teams.

We need organizations with an open mind, bold enough to break through traditional structures and courageous to redefine a true inclusive leadership style.

  • Create flexible leadership models as Co-CEO: If you create job-sharing models, even starting with a Co-CEO concept, you encourage people to re-define old roles and create a set of responsibilities that fit the amount of time dedicated. You might also choose to bring people on working in one role together that share a comprehensive set of skills that add to each other in a powerful way.
  • Promote and measure that you actively create a more diverse culture and teams: Promotion means that you as an organization specifically ask for women / diverse talent on your shortlists – either your internal recruiting team and/or external recruiting partners need to actively source talent and double down on finding them. Developing a clear set of KPIs such as ‘having 30% women in the management team by 2025’ is a powerful way to plan your career pipelines and measure your success as well. This is the only way to move from discussions and roundtables to actual results which will impact your decisions, products and success.
  • Introduce women leadership programs, mentorship options and share the stories of role models: Community creates a sense of belonging. Role Models inspire people to take action and see different career path possibilities. Stories of both male and female role models in the company, with a diverse set of career journeys, and sharing the challenges in a real and vulnerable way, will create a culture of growing new talents.
  • Diversity of leadership is deeply integrated and communicated in your mission as organization. This requires a 10–15-year vision to see a different set of leaders creating a new generation of products, solutions or services.
  • Radically challenge the traditional mindset and any bias in your organization. It is not about fulfilling a quota and promoting diverse pictures. The root cause why organizations protect the status quo is a mindset following ‘it had always been like that’ vs Leading with curiosity and purpose.
  • Develop a future-oriented maternity leave concept: Inform your team on maternity leave by keeping them up to date and create roles and responsibilities that allow a comeback also with limited hours. In countries with only a short period of maternity leave, we do not see a complete stop of communication since the break is only a shorter one. In countries with extended maternity leave standards, we do see that (mostly) women are out of the workforce for years, and a strategic career plan, in many cases, is completely interrupted or stopped.

In understanding the challenges of young families and crucial times when young parents need a break, companies who address solutions to work around these hardships will be rewarded. The return is a deep loyalty and connection within the team. Creating leave options for both parents when a child is born, when parents need support, or a health crisis has occurred, is the real #newwork.

  • Setting up company childcare options: Some organizations create solutions for childcare options at work. We may also consider extending that concept further by integrating concepts of day-care together with workspace.
  • Create part-time leadership roles: Leadership skills are not bound to a 40h / week. Delegating, a culture of empowerment, less administration time, and trust are the ingredients to create leadership roles with different time concepts.
  • Flexible hours and home office options: Integrating work and life is THE challenge for most of us – not only during a pandemic but also post it. The pandemic has erased boundaries and created opportunities for integration, as well as pushed working hours into normal off-limit times. Offering flexible working options and home office opportunities is crucial to integrating work, family as well as much-needed offline time to rejuvenate.

Chicken – egg – chicken – egg. We’re curious if we will still ask the same questions in a year from now, 5 years from now, or 10 years from now...or at least lean into asking more profound questions on the subject. We can already see the impact of more women leading organizations by the diversity of products in our hands and services we consume that may feel radically different.