Highlights from Egon Zehnder’s Global Women’s Survey

In the last twenty years, women have achieved significant gains in their representation among senior business executives and government and nonprofit leaders. Yet much remains to be done. In charting paths for future progress, it is important to have a continual understanding of how women see their career trajectory, the challenges they face and the support they require.

In March 2016, Egon Zehnder surveyed 179 women around the world on these and other issues related to career motivation. Many of those women also participated in “Leaders and Daughters: Cultivating the Next Generation of Women Leaders,” a global series of events hosted by Egon Zehnder in conjunction with International Women’s Day that brought together senior leaders and their daughters for a series of roundtable and panel discussions regarding the experiences and perspectives of professional women today. The following are some highlights and quotes taken from the survey responses.

Women are confident that they can “have it all”—but this confidence declines during the critical mid-career years.

Women begin their careers confident that they can “have it all”—that they can reach the highest levels of their profession and also be fully engaged parents.

“Gender diversity isn’t a ‘women’s issue,’ it’s a business issue.”

But somewhat fewer women believe this as they enter middle management and confront the complexities of worklife balance that often make “having it all” so difficult. Confidence in juggling family and career returns once women have gained experience doing so and have progressed further in their careers.

There are notable regional differences on this issue. Only 72 percent of women in Europe feel it is realistic for women to “have it all,” but 94 percent of women in the United States and Canada feel this way. Asia, Australia and Latin America fall in between those two extremes.

Women are reaching for the top, all over the world.

Eighty percent of the women we surveyed aspire to the senior ranks of their profession, such as CEO or board member, managing director, government minister, university professor or a similar position. Twelve percent were unsure, with only seven percent reporting that they are setting their goals lower.

“Women are often underestimated when instead they need to be challenged to do things they are not sure they can do. But the organization must be ready to accept failure, and have another challenge ready.”

For the most part, women adjust their goals to what they believe is realistic.

There are notable regional differences regarding whether or not women think they can have it all and whether or not they aspire to the top of their profession. In Asia, Europe and Latin America, those two factors tend to be correlated. In Australia, women’s ambitions are somewhat greater than what they think is possible. In the United States and Canada, on the other hand, women almost unanimously believe that “having it all is possible” but only 67 percent are aiming for the top, suggesting a great deal of ambivalence on this issue as it unfolds in reality.

Family lights the spark, but peers fan the fire.

For those in early and middle management ranks, family members are by far the greatest influence on one’s professional ambitions and choices. At the senior executive ranks, however, peers become much more influential, highlighting the importance of professional networks for moving into the top ranks.

“Evaluate people based on their potential to develop, not just whether or not they have all the desired experience.”

Overall, 79 percent of women surveyed felt it is important to have female executives in their organization; 91 percent of entry-level women felt this way.
Overall, 79 percent of women surveyed felt it is important to have female executives in their organization; 91 percent of entry-level women felt this way.

In the battle for equality, the focus is now on less-explicit barriers

While acknowledging that progress has been made, women feel that there is still a long way to go before they have achieved full equality of opportunity.

“The stigma attached to women for ‘changing their priorities’ once they start a family will lessen once it is socially acceptable for a man to take as much time as a woman does to support, raise and nurture their family.”

Professional support must evolve with a woman’s career needs

Organizations can be more effective in supporting women in their careers if they recognize that the type of assistance women need changes during their professional trajectory. For women in the first two years of their careers, professional development is the most requested form of career support. Women with between two and eight years of experience most value mentoring, while those eight or more years into their careers place the greatest emphasis on networking opportunities.

Survey Demographics

The 179 survey respondents represented a wide range of regions, experience and professional levels:

Years in professional workforce

Current level