How HR Can Help Close Executive Level Gender Gaps


In a surprise to many inside and outside the company and after leading the company for 12 years, PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi, is stepping downOpens a new window .

The announcement comes as various high-profile female corporate leaders are leaving their positions: Over the past year, top-ranking women have resigned at major companies, including ex-CEOs Denise Morrison at Campbell Soup, Margo Georgiadis at Mattel and Meg Whitman at Hewlett Packard.

In fact, following the talismanic CEO’s upcoming November departure from the soda and chip maker, just 5% of chief executives of Fortune 500 companies will be women.

Nooyi’s decision understandably has many wondering what’s happening to the women in top positions, highlighting just how important it is for companies to support elevating more women to leadership rolesOpens a new window .

Although a 2017 Deloitte studyOpens a new window found that women were making gradual headway into boardrooms at Fortune 500 companies, it still reported that only 15% of those board seats are actually held by women.

Moreover, most deep dives concur that progress has been sluggish recently and that there is still a long way to go in reaching gender equality in the workplace – especially at C-levels.

With numerous studies documenting the value of corporate gender parity and overall gender diversity,Opens a new window HR departments should do everything within their purview to plug the gap at the top levels of their organizations. Ultimately, human resources can play a pivotal role in changing a company’s culture and ensuring that more women are handed opportunities at senior levels, and given optimal support staying there.

Challenges of achieving gender equality at top levels

As McKinsey details in its annual Women in the WorkplaceOpens a new window reports, numerous barriers abound blocking gender equality in the C-suite. In the most recent report, McKinsey suggests that progress is even stalling: While there were 32 female CEOs leading companies in the Fortune 500 last year, that number will plummet to 23 when Nooyi leaves PepsiCo.

McKinsey consistently has found that “women are simply less likely than men to advance.” Among the many issues facing gender equality at an executive level is the fact that gender diversity is not considered by most companies to be a priority – even though the majority insist it’s a top concern among executives.

Meanwhile, generally odds are lower for advancement of women at every level – and there is a clear lack of support and coaching for women at most companies.

Critically, one of the biggest issues is a pervasive if unconscious bias against women in the culture of many companies, where the default mode is to value men’s contributions more highly than women’s.

HR’s role in supporting women in leadership

Indeed, considering that company culture lies at the heart of the problem, HR departments should commit to fomenting change at the organizational levelOpens a new window .

While various HR initiatives can encourage a level playing field for women regarding both available opportunities and promotion practices, change needs to start at the top in order influence the overall culture.

Organizations underrepresented by women at the executive levels need their HR departments to show company leaders the numbers. HR must influence senior executives to make gender equality at C-suite – as well as across the company – a strategic priority for the company’s selecting, recruiting and hiring processes.

Many employees regard HR as the company’s agent of change. As such, the department clearly must commit to promulgating gender diversity, involved in each step of the employee life cycle, ensuring gender equality is top-of-mind by C-level executives and, ultimately creating and offering initiatives designed to tackling the issue.

In other words, by attacking the unconscious – and often conscious – gender bias that persists in many – if not the majority – of organizations, every HR program, strategy and plan dedicated to helping increase the number of high-ranking women will have a better chance of success.

Initiatives HR can take after influencing a culture change

  • Promote equality throughout the organization
  • Offer career guidance, workshops and coaching to high-ranking women that can help them navigate their leadership positions
  • Implement and support flexible working
  • Create a succession plan that focuses on shaping a talent pipeline of women who aspire to executive and board positions
  • Ensure gender diversity becomes a strategic policy