Gender Gap: Eller Survey Finds Obstacles for Women at Work

Aug. 25, 2017
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When it comes to equality of men and women at work we are still a long way away from parity. Senior women executives are a minority of today’s leadership teams and frankly, for no good reason. What makes matters worse is that progress has been, at best, slow. In some cases, we have seen a reversal in the advancement of women in senior positions. This trend is certainly not encouraging cognitive diversity, which drives better corporate performance as more recent research suggests.

Eller Executive Education, the executive development arm of Eller College of Management at University of Arizona, surveyed 50 senior women executives (VP level and above) at U.S. Fortune 500 companies to better understand why we are not making progress and what we should do to improve. The results told us that the current recipe for the advancement of women in the workplace is not working.

What the Results tell us about the Gender Gap

Overall, only 30% of the companies surveyed have any initiatives aimed at addressing the senior leadership gender gap. And those that do, have either been recently launched or are not integrated in the overall talent development strategy.

Participants to the survey broke past stereotypes on what women needed to succeed at work. The top skills women felt they needed to develop were:

  1. Managing unconscious bias
  2. Developing personal resilience
  3. Building emotional intelligence

What Companies Can Do

Some additional insights emerged from our survey that organizations might want to consider as they formulate plans for stronger leadership teams.

  1. The spectrum of initiatives aimed at closing the gender gap is based on a wrong assumption: women need to improve in many leadership areas. Our research tells us that most women leadership development programs today identify skills where women are seen as worse performers than men. Yet, as an example, neuroscience tells us that women can be better than men in decisions that require retrieving information from long-term memory. Identifying and building on this knowledge can help teams and their leaders outperform others, including their competitors.
  2. While it is important to help women leaders with their individual development so that they can be more effective leaders, men need to better understand what their own shortcomings are in managing a diverse workplace. This, for example, means developing programs for men so they can best work with women teams at work; this being an increasingly common reality of the gig-based economy.
  3. Create a level playing field when thinking of talent development. As one respondent put it, “men are hired on potential, women on accomplishment.” That creates a natural selection process where more men are seen as emerging leaders vs. their female counterpart.
  4. Identify and call out unconscious bias. Leaders like to believe that their decisions are objectively driven by business imperatives. However, there is abundant research in the unconscious group bias of senior executive teams. Unconscious bias often translates into non-inclusive cultures, skewed employee policies for selection and work assignments.
  5. Teach your teams the skills of positive influence. Our survey participants identified influence as a critical skill that both men and women need to develop. They also complained that this skill is often understood to be used as a way to advance one’s interest. In the context of gender initiatives, our survey respondents recommended that leadership teams learn to become better “gender bridging” communicators so that both sexes benefit from the exchange.

On the heels of this survey, Eller Executive Education plans to launch a new gender inclusive leadership program dedicated to the concept that women executives and their allies can do more to address the corporate leadership gender gap. The program will explore what power women bring to the organization, what is needed to thrive within an inclusive organization, and how best to foster this experience for others.

Find more insight on the program at


Eller Executive Education (EEE) surveyed selected senior women executives in diverse functional roles employed at Fortune 500 companies. Our research team also gathered information on the Fortune 500 gender parity and inclusion initiatives through secondary research and the annual corporate reports where available. The companies were identified using the April 2007 issue of Fortune magazine.

Eller Executive Education made every effort to achieve the highest degree of accuracy. Because data and information on gender inclusion initiatives are not always publicly available, EEE has made numerous attempts to verify the information. If factual errors or omissions are discovered, EEE will make necessary adjustments to our survey and its reporting.

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