Data Reveals How the Percentage of Women in Leadership Has Changed Over the Past 15 Years

March 8, 2017

Co-authored by Kristin Chen.

Here’s a stat you’ve probably heard: less than 6% of CEOs in the S&P 500 are women, despite the fact that women make up about half of the American workforce. Today, to mark International Women’s Day, LinkedIn is going beyond that often cited stat to take a closer look at the gender leadership gap—the difference between overall representation and representation in leadership roles. In other words -- what’s the percentage of Leslie Knopes in the global workforce and how we can get more of them.

It turns out that while overall female representation varies from industry to industry—for instance, women make up less than a quarter (23%) of STEM professionals—the leadership gap is universal. You even find it in industries in which women are overrepresented: take healthcare, where women make up 62% of the workforce, but only 49% of leadership positions (a leadership gap of 13%). While the overall gender ratio can reveal barriers to entry, leadership gaps demonstrate barriers to advancement.

However, our research indicates that progress is being made. We analyzed millions of LinkedIn profiles to see the industries and occupations where women are thriving—and where there are still barriers to overcome. Let’s explore where the leadership gap is worst, whether it’s been closing, and what we can do to help.

The largest leadership gaps are in staffing, healthcare, and financial services

Using LinkedIn’s profile data, we analyzed the gender gaps across industries in the US. Surprisingly, the biggest leadership gap is found in staffing, where 55% of the industry is female, but only 40% of leaders are women, a gap of 15%.

% Female overall vs. leadership representation, by industry grouping

Data sampled across 53M+ LinkedIn profiles worldwide. Industrials = Aero/Auto/Transport, Architecture & Engineering, Manufacturing/Industrial, Oil & Energy.

Healthcare, finance and professional services are the next-worst offenders with 13% leadership gaps. While tech gets a particularly bad rap for its gender imbalances, it occupies the fourth and fifth spots in our analysis, with a 9% leadership gap in both software technology and hardware and telecom.

Though a 9% gap might not seem dire, those seemingly “minor” imbalances make a major difference: a woman in software is only 61% as likely to rise to a leadership position than her male colleagues. Put another way, a man is more than one-and-a-half times (1.6x) as likely as a woman to become a leader in software.

We also looked into how leadership gaps vary by function.

% Female overall vs. leadership representation, by select functions

Data sampled across 33M+ LinkedIn profiles worldwide.

Sales has the worst gap at 11%, while HR has the best representation of women and women leaders, with only a 5% gap.

The good news is that the gap has been slowly closing since 2008

In light of that data, we had to wonder: are things getting better? We took a look at trends over time, from 2001 to 2016. The results were hopeful—and a bit perplexing.

Female leadership gap by industry grouping, 2001-2016

Data sampled across 53M+ LinkedIn profiles worldwide.

Each line above tracks the difference between overall representation and leadership representation of women by industry group. From 2001 to 2007, the gaps were more or less stable.

But then, around 2008, something starts to happen. We begin to see a clear shift across most industries: leadership gaps started to slowly close, and have continued trending down since.

Why? It’s hard to say for certain, but the economic recession of 2007-2008 seems a likely culprit. After waves of layoffs, with the costs of wrong decisions fresh on their minds, companies may have been more motivated to improve leadership diversity as they attempted to rebound from recession. Short-term employment turnover also probably opened new roles for women to step into.

How have leadership gaps evolved over time when you break it down by function?

Female leadership gap by select functions, 2001-2016

Data sampled across 33M+ LinkedIn profiles worldwide.

Accounting and HR have made the greatest improvements, while the gaps in consulting and operations have grown. Curiously, the gap in sales was getting worse until 2013, when things started to turn around.

In software, the leadership gap widens despite widespread gains

As you’ve probably noticed by now, there are two glaring exceptions to the trend: staffing and  software technology. Unlike the other sectors noted, the leadership gap in staffing has gone up and down without a clear trend, while the gap in software is the only one to consistently trend upwards.

Fortunately, it’s not quite as bad as it seems: in tech (and most other industries), female representation is actually growing—both overall and in leadership positions. It’s just that in tech, the gains at the entry level are outpacing those in leadership.

In 2001, software was 25.7% female and 17.3% of leadership roles were held by women—a leadership gap of 8.4%. 15 years later, the overall percent of women increased by 3.3% (to 29.0%), while the percent in leadership roles rose by only 2.3% (to 19.6%)—creating a bigger leadership gap of 9.4%, despite the gains across the board.

Simply put, there are way more women entering the industry than there are women rising to the top—for now. As this new generation of women now entering the industry rise through the ranks, we expect to see the leadership gap close over the decade.

All the same, we’re left with the question: why is tech the only exception to the general trend? We’re still scratching our heads.

What causes the gender leadership gap, and how can we eliminate it?

Putting your finger on one specific cause for the leadership gap is tough—and solving it may be even tougher. Are women held to a higher standard when vying for leadership roles? Did they need more qualifications or years of experience before getting a leadership position? We tested those hypotheses, but couldn’t find any compelling evidence.

In fact, our data suggests that the problem isn’t that women need more experience to be leaders—it’s that after about 10 years, the more experience women have, the less likely they are to become leaders. The same is true of men, but to much lesser extent.

Take a look at the graph below, which shows how many years it takes to achieve a leadership position after completing an undergraduate education.

Men vs. Women by Years before 1st Leadership Role

Data sampled across 1.8M profiles in the US.

Clearly, among professionals in leadership roles, there are way more men than women. But it’s not just the size that differs—it’s also the shape of the “leadership curve.”

The sweet spot for both men and women to take on a leadership role seems to be the period between 10 and 15 years of being in the workforce. But many men reach leadership roles after 20 or even 30 years, while this is far rarer for women.

Among professionals who become leaders after 10 years, there are almost two men (1.9) for every woman. 20 years out, there are 2.6 men for each woman. After 30 years, there are over three men (3.1) joining the leadership ranks for every woman who makes it.

Whether due to employer bias or personal choice, men seem to have a good 30 or 40 years to strive for leadership roles—for most women, the window is far smaller.

This certainly isn’t the only cause—for example, it doesn’t explain the narrower (but still sizable) gap five to 10 years into a career—but it’s a clearly a contributing factor. To close the leadership gap, companies may want to start allowing women more opportunities for career growth throughout their life, not just in their 20s and 30s.

From the trends above, it seems like the leadership gap is slowly but surely closing. We’re not there yet, but the data shows real progress and hope for the future. We can’t tell you how cool it is to see this happening in real-time in the data—and out in the real world. Not to toot our own horn, but diversity is a top priority at LinkedIn: about 44% of our employees are women, as are 41% of our leaders—a leadership gap of just 3%. Happy Women’s Day!

This is the first installment of our new monthly InTheKnow feature, applying insights from LinkedIn’s data to topical questions in the real world. If there’s something you’d like us to answer next time, submit your questions to


Data aggregated from public LinkedIn profiles. Seniority is inferred from job title. Gender is inferred from first name. Years to first leadership position is calculated as the gap between university graduation and the start date of the earlier leadership position listed on each profile. Only profiles where these data were known or could be confidently inferred were included in the analysis. Though LinkedIn launched in 2003, past positions listed on profiles allow for historical analysis spanning prior to that date.

*Image from Parks and Recreation

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