Closing The Gap

Women reach leadership roles earlier than men do—but fewer make it to the top, according to LinkedIn

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If you're a women and you want to call the shots at a company, the first 10 years of your career after graduation are even more important than you think. 

When women make it to the top of the corporate ladder, they do so 1.4 years faster than men, on average, a recent study by LinkedIn found. But few women ever actually make it to such lofty positions within an organization, and, if they do aspire to such roles, they have to move fast, otherwise they'll likely never hold a director or C-Suite level role.

Women have a much smaller window of opportunity to reach the top than men do, LinkedIn's research shows. For every woman who achieves a leadership position — defined as a director-level or higher gig — within the first decade of her career, 1.8 men do the same. That gap only widens the longer a woman works.

In the second decade of a person's career, 2.1 men will reach leadership roles for every one women who does. That means that a woman who's passed more than 10 years in the workforce without reaching a director-level or higher role likely won't, as her "chance of doing so — relative to men — starts to deteriorate, and continues to do so for the rest of her career," according to LinkedIn's research.

The trend held true within the U.S. and all four of the other countries — India, Germany, Italy, Norway — included in LinkedIn's research.

American women land their first leadership role after 9.8 years of workplace experience, on average; it takes American men 10.9 years to do the same. In Germany, women advanced the quickest, taking 7.7 years, typically, to reach the top compared to nine years for German men.

The U.S. fares best in terms of gender equality among leadership; 35% of the most senior roles at organizations are held by women in the U.S. And women with more than 10 years of work history also had the highest odds of being promoted to director or C-suite level roles.

For every American woman who'd been in the workforce 20-plus years before being promoted to a leadership role, 2.1 men achieved the same, slightly better than the global ratio of 1:2.3.

But because fewer women are promoted later in their careers, the average skews toward the younger workers simply because they are the only ones able to climb the corporate ladder to the top — not because women are necessarily more successfully than men in their first years of work.

What's driving this pattern? Rachel Bowley, senior data scientist at LinkedIn, analyzed and compiled this research and suggests there could be multiple explanations, everything from gender bias to life choices. "Men are able to push their own progression into later stages of their careers, women tend to hit a barrier in the middle of theirs," Bowley tells CNBC Make It.

That could be because women are more likely to take time off to raise children or care for other family members during their careers.

These breaks can be seen as women deprioritizing their career ambitions and thus falling a few years behind previous peers in terms of experience or tool knowledge in some employers' eyes.

Mothers, do, after all face a steep wage penalty for their decision to start a family. Research from Henrik Kleven, an economist at Princeton University, found that women with kids end up earning 20% less than their male counterparts with children over the course of their career. Mothers are also seen as less devoted to their jobs, according to a recent study by Bright Horizons.

Women, overall, have higher levels of educational achievement than men, meaning they are more likely to enter the workforce with additional credentials or advanced degrees. And that extra education could help propel them to early leadership positions over men without such backgrounds, Bowley said, another possible cause behind this pattern.

Regardless of the exact reason, and how exciting it might be to see women's quicker ascent to leadership, there is "still a very large shortage of women in these types of positions," says Bowley. 

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