Women still face broken rungs on the career ladder

More women than ever before occupy senior executive positions, but true gender parity hasn’t yet been reached and women continue to face unique challenges in their careers according to the latest Women in the Workplace Report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. This year’s study—which is based on data and insights from 329 companies employing over 13 million people and more than 68,500 employees—identifies a key point on the corporate ladder where women lose the most ground: the first step up to manager. If companies fixed this broken rung, it could add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next 5 years.

The report claims that more women have risen to leadership at the top levels of companies. In the C-suite in particular, the representation of women leaders has increased from 17 percent to 21 percent. Company commitment to gender diversity is also at an all-time high this year: 87 percent of companies report they’re highly committed, compared to 56 percent in 2012, when McKinsey & Company conducted a similar study on the state of women at work.

“To get to equality, we need to know where we are and how far we have to go,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and co-founder of LeanIn.Org. “For five years, this study has given companies—and all of us—a detailed picture of exactly what women are up against at work. We have the data and insights we need to reduce bias, close the gender gap, and make the workplace equal.”


Enduring under-representation

Still, women continue to be underrepresented at every level, especially women of colour. A big reason for that is the initial disparity in the first promotion to manager. For every 100 men promoted or hired into manager roles, only 72 women are promoted or hired to manager. Largely because of this, men hold 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent. As a result, there are less women to advance to higher levels. So despite seeing hiring and promotion rates improve for senior women, women, as a whole, can never catch up.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Repairing the broken rung is the key to creating significantly more leadership opportunities for women[/perfectpullquote]

“Repairing the broken rung is the key to creating significantly more leadership opportunities for women. Taking this single action can have an outsized impact,” said Kevin Sneader, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company. “Over the next 5 years, this can add 1 million additional women managers.”

Despite the opportunity potential, our research indicates that companies are not fully aware of this “broken rung” or taking enough action. When asked what the biggest challenges are to reaching equal numbers of women and men in leadership, HR leaders most often point to a lack of qualified women throughout the pipeline; while very few recognise that women are less likely to be promoted to manager-level roles and are getting stuck early in their careers.

Women in the Workplace 2019 also reaffirms the importance of a strong company culture. Employees universally value opportunity and fairness. Across demographic groups, when employees feel they have equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work.

As companies focus on their culture, it’s important to understand that not all women are having the same experience at work. Women of colour, lesbian and bisexual women, and women with disabilities are having distinct—and by and large worse—experiences than women overall. Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement and often receive less support than other groups of women and men. These findings reinforce how important it is for companies to understand the challenges different groups of women face and address them head-on.


Other findings:

Women are staying in the workforce and doing their part. Again this year, women are not leaving their companies at higher rates than men. Moreover, the vast majority of women and men who plan to leave their company intend to stay in the workforce—and less than 2 percent of employees are planning to leave to focus on family. Women are also asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men, and this has been true since 2015.

There are steps companies can take to improve hiring and promotions. Interviews and survey results highlight critical practices: setting diversity targets; assembling a diverse slate of qualified candidates for open positions; requiring unconscious bias training for evaluators; and establishing clear and specific criteria before review processes begin.

Employees universally value opportunity and fairness. Across demographic groups, when employees feel they have equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work. Regular manager support, sponsorship, and inclusive and bias-free hiring and promotions are the biggest factors that lead employees to feel they have equal opportunity and the most deserving employees are able to rise to the top.

Managers are providing valuable career support—but not often enough. Employees are more likely to think they have equal opportunities for growth and advancement when their manager showcases their work, helps them manage their career, and advocates for new opportunities for them. Most managers provide this type of career support, but not with enough consistency: One in three employees say managers advocate for new opportunities for them a great deal, and about one in four employees say managers regularly help them manage their career.

Sponsorship can open doors—and employees need more of it. Fewer than half of the employees at the manager level or higher serve as sponsors, and only one in three employees says they have a sponsor—and this is equally true for women and men. While there is room for improvement, sponsorship is trending in the right direction—just a year ago, a quarter of employees reported having a sponsor.

Employees want more flexibility, and companies are delivering. Almost all companies offer employees time off for family or personal reasons, and more than 70 percent of employees say their companies offer at least some flexibility to work from home, up from about 40 percent in 2015. Employees recognise the benefits of these policies, but they still think companies can go further: Work-life flexibility was the number one issue raised by employees in 2019.

Most women who work also have partners who work. Eighty-one percent of women have a partner who works full-time, compared to 56 percent of men. And as employees become more senior, this disparity between women and men grows: 72 percent of senior-level women have a partner who works, compared to only 37 percent of men at the same level. When it comes to household responsibilities, there is also a big gender disparity: 39 percent of women in dual-career relationships report doing most or all of the housework, compared to just 11 percent of men in dual-career relationships. Dual-career relationships are also becoming more common: In 2015, 75 percent of women and 47 percent of men had a partner who worked full-time.

Many employees take leave, but some worry about negative consequences. Over the last five years, a majority of employees have become new parents or dealt with a significant personal or family health issue. About half of these employees took leave. Many employees who did not take leave were able to handle the situation without a break in work, but others point to concerns about work responsibilities, fear it might negatively impact their career, or financial concerns. Moreover, 20 percent of women who’ve taken a leave say that it negatively impacted their career, compared to 10 percent of men. Women are also twice as likely to say it had a negative effect on their financial well-being.

Paternity leave has increased, but maternity leave is stagnant. Significantly more U.S. companies offer paid paternity leave compared to three years ago, and the average paid leave available to new fathers has increased from four to seven weeks. Similarly, the number of companies offering extended paternity leave has increased by 59 percent. New fathers appear to be taking advantage of these expanded policies: In 2019, men were roughly as likely as women to take leave when they became new parents. However, the average length of paid maternity leave in U.S. companies has remained stuck at ten weeks—compared to the more than 20 weeks women, on average, receive in Europe.

The foundation of a good culture is a safe and respectful workplace. Companies need to hold leaders and employees accountable for good behaviour and have systems in place to surface and address bad behaviour. When employees think their company is serious about accountability, they are happier and more likely to stay at their company. Yet only 32 percent of women and 50 percent of men believe disrespectful behaviour toward women is often quickly addressed by their company.

Companies should equip employees to be part of the solution. Employees directly shape company culture, and they have an important role to play in speaking up when they see biased and disrespectful behaviour. In the past year, 33 percent of women and 11 percent of men say they have seen or heard biased behaviour toward women. But 73 percent of women report experiencing microaggressions – or everyday slights rooted in bias. Additionally, only about a third of employees who’ve seen bias over the past year spoke up personally to challenge it—and a quarter say someone else did. Managers are critical too: When managers regularly challenge gender-biased language or behaviour, employees are several times more likely to say their company values people’s differences and quickly addresses that disrespectful behaviour toward women.

Microaggressions can have a macro impact if they go unchecked. From having their judgement challenged to being overlooked or being mistaken for someone at a more junior level, women are far more likely to experience this everyday discrimination. While 73 percent of women and 59 percent of men have experienced at least one type of microaggression, these everyday slights are more common for women.

Sexual harassment remains far too common. Two in five women surveyed have experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of their career, such as hearing sexist jokes, being touched in an inappropriately sexual way, and receiving unwanted attempts to have an intimate relationship. Lesbian women, bisexual women, women in technical roles, and women in leadership roles are more likely to be sexually harassed. It is critical that companies communicate sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. Many are doing this effectively. Ninety-one percent of companies say they’ve communicated their sexual harassment policy to employees in the past year, and eighty percent of employees report that senior leaders at their company have clearly communicated that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

“Only” women are having a worse experience than other women. About 1 in 5 women say they are often an “Only,” and this experience is twice as likely for senior-level women and women in technical roles. Women who are Onlys are far more likely to experience microaggressions than men and women who have other women on their teams. Moreover, they are nearly twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their career.