Why So Few Female Leaders? Lack of Skills Isn’t the Issue

When you think about how few female leaders there are, see if you can stomach this:
There are more Fortune 500 CEOs named John or Michael than an entire gender.1

  • 9.8% of CEOs are named Michael (4.5%) or John (5.3%)
  • 4.1% of CEOs are women

What’s your gut-level reaction as to why? Ours is that men are viewed as having more leadership skills than women. Yet, research proves this isn’t the case. That isn’t at all the reason why female leaders lag behind men.

Lack of leadership skills isn’t the driver for fewer female leaders.

Below are 16 leadership competencies that Zenger Folkman found to be critical for successful leaders. Guess who demonstrates each skill more often: Executive men or women.

The Zenger Folkman Study2 of 7,280 360° feedback assessments revealed that 15 of these competencies were demonstrated more by women than men in the 360° assessments.

Only one skill was demonstrated more by men: strategic perspective. One could argue that the reason for this is because so few female leaders are in strategic roles, such as CEO. (I’m looking at you, John and Michael…)

The point of this study is not to say that one gender is better than the other. In some instances, women outperformed men in a skill by just a hair. The point is the lack of female leaders is not a leadership capabilities issue.

So, what is the issue?

We must think about what practices, goals, and mentalities will lead us to leverage high-performing talent of both genders. Unbeknownst to your organization, there may be barriers to this that no one has yet determined and addressed. Our women in leadership program can help you explore this.

Zenger Folkman’s study makes it clear that your rising female leaders have the leadership potential needed to run your company one day. What about your organization’s current state might stop her from getting there? Our free Gender Diversity Assessment Workbook is the starting point for finding out. Get your free copy here.


1 Fewer Women Run Big Companies Than Men Named John, The New York Times
2 A Study in Leadership: Women do it Better than Men, Zenger Folkman