By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a new McKinsey report [PDF], not all talent pipelines are the same. Factors like industry, leadership, heritage, and more affect what the pipeline of women to senior leadership roles looks like.

When embarking on a program to develop, retain, and advance women from the entry levels to the c-suite, it’s important for leaders, diversity practitioners, and people managers to know where their company is on the gender diversity continuum.

Report authors Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee write, “Each company’s transformation plan depends on its industry context and starting point—but wherever companies are today is a great place to start.”

Funnels and Pipes

In least year’s report, McKinsey researchers suggested that companies work to help women at mid-management levels stay in the pipeline to the top. It seems that more women drop out of the workforce at this time, in part due to family responsibilities and in part due to inhospitable workplaces. By working to retain women at this critical career juncture, companies can insure a robust flow of women to senior levels.

This year, the researchers have identified two common pipeline shapes for companies that have above average numbers of female talent at the top – funnels and pipes. “Funnel” shaped pipelines are usually in industries that attract a lot of women in entry level roles – like healthcare. Because there are so many women going into the pipeline from the start, even though many women drop out of the workforce through the years, there are still decent numbers flowing into the c-suite.

On the other hand, the “pipe” shape usually developed in companies that took in fewer women initially – for example, in the tech industry – but through steady work and recruitment at every level, still delivered a significant number of women to top roles.

Neither pipeline produces better or worse quality of leadership, Barsh and Yee say. For example, when it comes to senior women who have navigated funnels, “those women were strong role models, showing younger women that success was within reach.” As far as pipes, women who reach the top may be more committed from the start.

Nevertheless, they add, understanding pipeline shape is important when it comes to developing a strong talent strategy.

“If a company is a natural funnel, it might choose to focus on recruiting and helping midlevel women develop their skills. If a company takes in less than 30 percent of women, it can review its practices at every level to remove the barriers that discourage all but the most resilient women.”

Getting an understanding of pipeline shape can help influence the success of a company’s gender diversity talent strategy.

Factors for Pipeline Success

The study is based on interviews with 350 “CEOs and senior business leaders, human-resources and diversity professionals, and well-respected female executives” at 60 corporations and 300 entry and mid level employees at 14 companies, as well as work by academic and non-profit leaders.

The study found that there are several institutional barriers that companies can work to remove, in order to help women achieve their full potential in the workforce. A few characteristics of successful companies include:

1. Full vocal and visible commitment by leadership.

2. Active talent management, utilizing performance metrics and accountability standards for diversity.

3. Continuous discussion about talent diversity at every level.

The researchers explained:

“As always, what’s measured is what matters, and over time new standards can affect practice and culture. Detailed data are shared broadly so that everyone has the facts. Discussions are scheduled regularly. The business executives responsible for a function or division report on progress and setbacks, engaging with senior leadership on problem solving. In consequence, the leaders get to know the women in their organization and strategize with them about potential career moves. They become sponsors as appropriate and are, at minimum, accountable for what happens next.”

Companies that are successful at keeping the flow of women to the c-suite robust are the ones where discussions about diversity take place continuously; so much that diversity is woven into the fabric of the culture. By creating a culture of talent management (rather than a series of diversity initiatives), companies can ensure work to develop the pipeline of female talent is successful.