Women in the C-Suite: Ambitions and Likability

I love answering popular science questions! Recently, I was able to answer three of the juiciest career related questions I could think of with LinkedIn’s data. To put the cherry on top, LinkedIn and Strata were a tremendous help and made the work public here and here. Now, let me tell you the first of three data stories. It’s about the growth of women’s presence in executive leadership and how well liked executive leaders are.

C-Suites, or the group of chief executive officers (CEO), chief technical (CTO), COO, CIO, … are a powerful and fascinating crowd. While many stories of CEOs are about people who grew with the company from early stages, that is not typical. The C-Suite is not a group of people you pull off the shelf at the beginning stage of the company and who stay the same as the company grows. In fact, C-Suite growth is a function of company growth. There are two periods of growth, early stage and sustained growth. In the early growth stage, a company will have a CEO and may gain additional CXOs (people with chief department X officer titles), but is mostly focused on growing the employee base. Right around 3k employees the sustaining growth phase kicks in. For every additional 1k employees a company gains, the C-Suite will grow by an additional CXO.

executive_growth cxo_1

How the C-Suite grows has two interesting elements. For starters, large C-Suites actually have two CEOs, two CTOs, etc. This organization comes from mergers, acquisitions, and managing global companies. The second CEO’s title will be along the lines of CEO of Consumer Products, CEO of Asian Ventures, etc. The other cause of growth in the C-Suite is the X in CXO adopts many new meanings. Massive companies will most likely have a chief medical officer, chief learning officer, chief HR officer, etc. The diversity of titles of the C-Suite explodes for large companies. A question arises, as the diversity of C-Suite titles increases, how does the diversity of the C-Suite change?


Note: the outliers are from buckets of company size containing armed security organizations.

It’s gorgeous! Let’s take a moment to understand this plot. The larger the company, the higher the proportion of women in the C-Suite. Which means the growth rate of women in the C-Suite far exceeds the growth rate of the C-Suite! It may be increasingly difficult to obtain an executive position in a large company, but that’s where we approach gender equality. Okay, but is this because the roles such as chief administrative officer are bringing in women? Let’s look at only the CEO position:

Note: the outliers are from buckets of company size containing armed security organizations.

Note: the outliers are from buckets of company size containing armed security organizations.

The trend persists! I expect some learned colleagues can offer further insights and ask directive questions. I look forward to hearing and exploring them. In the meantime, my personal interpretation is:

If you are a woman aspiring to the C-Suite, dream big. Dream massive.

Right. Let’s say you get to the C-Suite. There is a famous study on a side effect by the Harvard Business School known as the Heidi/Howard paradigm. Women in managerial roles are perceived as equally competent and knowledgeable as men in similar roles, but not as well liked. Appeal can be tough to measure. To approximate how well liked a person is, let us use the number of endorsements they receive on LinkedIn. It’s not a precise measure of how well liked they are, but is close enough to give us insights into large trends.


It’s inline with expectations after the Heidi/Howard study. Men receive more endorsements in general. However, that’s not the complete picture. For small companies, women in the C-Suite receive more endorsements. In fact, women in the C-Suite at small companies receive the most endorsements. The implications are twofold. Heidi/Howard is not the complete picture. If the goal is to increase likeability, the benchmark should not be set between men and women, but between leaders at small and large companies.


My goal is to add a positive perspective for what is possible. I hope some of this work is inspiring for both men and women. I do not hypothesize on the right and wrong compositions of a C-Suite; I think that is an intensely personal question for each and every company. As a somewhat ambitious woman at the very start of my career – these numbers make me smile.

One thought on “Women in the C-Suite: Ambitions and Likability

  1. Thanks go to Sara Vera and Mathieu Bastian for their generous help on refining and polishing these ideas. Data guarantee:

    The number of companies and people measured is on the order of Millions
    All results are statistically significant to machine precision
    All results have been peer reviewed internally at LinkedIn

    For continued reading, may I suggest:
    Unlocking the full potential of women at work, McKinsey & Company
    Gender Diversity at the Top, Catalyst

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