Why We’re Still So Far Behind On Gender Equality At Work

A new study by McKinsey and reveals that corporate diversity initiatives aren’t doing much to change the ratio.

Why We’re Still So Far Behind On Gender Equality At Work
[Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Sheryl Sandberg is not happy. Facebook’s COO and author of Lean In (and founder of the organization that goes by the same name) says corporate America is not on a path to gender equality. Far from it. “If NASA launched a person into space today, she could soar past Mars, travel all the way to Pluto, and return to Earth 10 times before women occupy half of C-suite offices,” she writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Yes, we’re that far away.”


Sandberg knows the numbers because today, and McKinsey & Co. released the results of a study of 118 companies and nearly 30,000 employees that found corporate diversity initiatives aren’t doing much to change the ratio–not just in the C-suite where the disparity is greatest, but at every corporate level.

The Opt-Out Myth

Female leadership is essential to having a high-performance organization. Although many people point to the number of women who opt out of climbing the corporate ladder in pursuit of work/life balance, the report indicates the reality is far more complex. But it boils down to this: Women face greater barriers to advancement and a steeper path to senior leadership.

For starters, the report found that contrary to popular opinion, women aren’t leaving their jobs at higher rates than men. Their departures are about the same, or less, than men’s. For those who rise to leadership, their loyalty for the company is stronger. Senior vice presidents who are female are 20% less likely to leave than their male counterparts at the same level. Get women to the C-suite, and they are about half as likely to leave. Only at the senior manager level do women leave more than men, but the difference is small: 9.2% of women versus 8.6% of men.


A Thick Glass Ceiling

The findings indicate that the glass ceiling is as thick as ever in the corporate sphere. Across the advancement board, from entry level to manager and from SVP to executive rank, women are less likely to advance, with the greatest disparity occurring between manager to director. Women are only 79% as likely to reach that level, compared to 100% of men.

The report points to two trends that stand in the way of women ascending to leadership.

Fewer women hold roles that lead to the C-suite
The top brass are usually promoted because they have direct responsibility for the profitability of the company and its core operations, otherwise known as a line role. While a majority of men have roles like this, their female counterparts hold support roles (aka staff roles) in departments such as HR, legal, and IT. Job responsibilities that directly impact the bottom line help the employee prepare for executive roles, and, without that preparation, women are less likely to be considered.


Lower odds of reaching senior leadership
Women are represented consistently from one level to the next in staff roles, suggesting that they are moving up steadily in those jobs. Line roles show a different picture. At entry level, the likelihood of advancement is equal between line and staff roles (81% likely to ascend in either role). That likelihood drops off with each advancement in line roles, from a 79% chance of women rising between senior manager to VP, to 74% between VP to SVP, and 70% from there to the executive suite.

The Ambition Gap

Aspirations may abound for women and men just entering the workforce and through middle management. The difference between the genders comes when aspiring to the top spot. At every stage of their careers, women are less eager than men to become top executives. This gap is widest at the senior management level.

The reasons for the lack of interest ranged from not wanting the stress and pressure that came with the role and balancing work with family responsibilities. Interestingly enough, women and men were nearly equal in their confidence to be successful in the role, and having children didn’t seem to affect women’s response. Both men and women were also nearly equal in their feeling that staff would support them in a leadership role.


This may also explain why a recent Harvard study found that women are more likely to be cautious about promotions, and why fewer women pursue them.

Getting Everyone Onboard

Another potential roadblock to women in leadership is communication. While nearly three quarters (74%) of companies assert that their CEO is making gender diversity a priority, the staff at these organizations aren’t getting the message. Less than half of workers believe that gender diversity is a top priority for their CEO, and only a third view it as a top priority for their direct manager.

As for the guys in those workplaces, 70% of them think gender diversity is important, but only 12% believe women have fewer opportunities, and 13% of men believe they are disadvantaged by diversity initiatives.


Division Of Labor

While women continue to take on a disproportionate share of housework and child care (which extends to office chores like taking notes and planning parties) at every level of their career, they are more likely than men to say they would sacrifice their own career to support their partner’s success.

Add on the fact that working women are 60% more likely than working men to have a partner who works full time, a figure that climbs to 85% at the executive level, and you’ve got a recipe for women to opt out with greater frequency than men.

Support Systems

Women and men agree that mentors and sponsors are key to successful advancement, yet their networks differ by gender. Men are more likely to populate theirs with other men, while women split between all male, half-and-half, and all female networks of senior employees who’ve assisted their careers. Only half of black women say they have received senior-level support to advance their career, which lends more credence to Cooler Heads Intelligence founder Lauren Tucker’s philosophy that executive support is needed to get minority women from middle management into top jobs.


The report concludes with several recommendations for changing the ratio of women in the workplace at all levels of the corporate ladder. Among them:

  1. Senior leaders need to prove their commitment to gender diversity by participating in women’s events and publicly sponsoring high-potential female employees.
  2. Invest in initiatives that support women, particularly by reviewing employee compensation and closing pay gaps.
  3. Set targets and hold leaders accountable for reaching them. Those who did saw the most progress in female representation at entry levels, while those without formal targets lost ground in the three years between 2012 and 2015.
  4. Identify and interrupt gender bias from hiring (where we know even recruiting software can cause disparity) to performance reviews (where we know men will never hear certain criticisms).
  5. Do more to give all employees the flexibility to find their own balance between work and life (taking into account that managers and staff have different ideas of what this means).
  6. Create a virtuous cycle by making it a priority to appreciate and encourage senior-level women who are at a point in their career where dissatisfaction runs high and can work against retaining them.

The report indicates that there is still a ways to go to achieve parity. What’s encouraging is the fact that a majority of women and men report being satisfied with their careers, family situations, and personal lives.

The researchers write:


Employees on diverse and inclusive teams put in more effort, stay longer, and demonstrate more commitment. Women and men of all ages benefit from the flexibility to be their best selves at work and at home. Building on this foundation, corporate America can eliminate the barriers women face and help all employees achieve their full potential.

Related: Sallie Krawcheck On The Benefits Of Investing In Women


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.


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