Women are not a common sight in most executive suites. The number of females in C-level positions is surprisingly low.

The problem is compounded by the fact that women rarely hold the roles that lead to the executive suite – even though research has shown that when women participate in leadership, companies tend to have better performance and return on investment.

Yet, there are very few women in management roles, and the number of female managers decreases the further up the hierarchy you go.

The Current State of Women in Leadership Roles

While women occupy 60% of junior positions, they are sorely underrepresented as you move up the corporate hierarchy. Only 50% of middle management and just 20% of senior management are female. In the C-suite, women have roughly 10% of the roles there and the percentage of females in executive roles is even lower. According to Pew Research, only 5.1% of executives at S&P 1500 companies are female – and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

“We’re not really ensuring that women’s careers allow them to move into those important roles early enough, so they’re not getting the experience and opportunity and visibility that they need to help them advance,” says Deborah Gillis, president and CEO of Catalyst.

Women account for “only 10% of the short-term CEO candidate pool (i.e., people who’d be considered for promotion to CEO within the next three years),” explains the research company. “Looking out further, three to five years in the future, Pew Research found this trend was fairly standard across company sizes. However, the industry did make a difference in the proportion of C-level females. Over 17 per cent of non-CEO executives in the utility industry and 16% in consumer goods are women compared to just 8% in financials and 6% in telecom.

Understanding the Problem

The lack of women in leadership roles is a real problem, and it is a complex one.

“There are many reasons for the lack of women at the top, and these range from gender bias and discrimination to whether organisational cultures are rigid or flexible,” says Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper. “With social problems, there’s never one real smoking gun. If there were, we would be solving them faster than we are.” There are some driving forces that are readily apparent.

One issue is bias.

“A lurking “second-generation gender bias” is slowing women down by dissecting their behaviour and hobbling their advancement,” says Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School (LBS). “Companies will have to switch tactics to take on this more subtle phenomenon.” Prior to joining LBS, she was the INSEAD Cora Chaired Professor of Leadership and Learning.

Many women are encouraged to try for management positions, but they rarely make the cut and get the role. Other people might say that a female candidate does not have the right management style, but sometimes the issue is just that people aren’t used to a woman in the role. Second-generation bias causes many people to believe a woman is being abrasive or bossy when she behaves like a manager.

Gender Stereotypes

Gender stereotypes are another issue. People as a whole have a mental picture of what they imagine people with power and influence to look like. Often this is a tall, handsome man with a firm handshake – not a woman. Overcoming gender bias means overcoming this issue.

Family Matters

There is also a matter of family. One of the reasons that women are promoted to these upper-level positions less often than their male counterparts is that they take time off to have children and raise them. Sometimes, especially early in a career, the cost of childcare could outweigh a woman’s salary, making it difficult to choose work over home life.

The Power of Women Leadership

Decades of research has shown that when women are in leadership roles, corporate financial performance improves. In 2015, McKinsey & Company found that the most gender diverse companies are 15% more likely to generate returns that are above the averages for their respective industries. Catalyst added to these findings. It showed that having women on the board of directors at a company translated to 16% higher returns on sales and 26% higher returns on capital invested.

Some of these differences are credited to the nature of women themselves. Traditionally, women tend to score higher on markers of emotional intelligence and that could make them more effective as leaders. Females also tend to be more careful in navigating big decisions and more apt to be thorough in evaluating issues.

Moving Forward and Moving Up

Companies looking to improve gender diversity have several opportunities. They can reassess the leadership skills that their firms need and promote a more welcoming culture. They can also shift the focus to what each person can provide rather than the stereotypical attributes they expect him or her to have based on gender. But, the biggest opportunity for women who want to move up is to get moving.

”Be proactive about planning your career development,” says Lydia Quek, Presidential Management Associate at CLINIQUE Signapore. “Ask yourself what you really want to prioritise (and when), and work towards that.” Dust off your CV and look at where your qualifications stand compared to the competition.

One of the best pieces of advice for women looking to move up comes from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. “Don’t leave before you leave… You should lean in. Keep your foot on the gas pedal. Because it turns out, if you do that, you might get promoted,” says Sandberg. “You might make enough money to afford child care… You might get promoted to a level where there’s more flexibility.”