For the last four years, companies in the USA have reported that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress.
Women continue to be vastly underrepresented at every level. For women of color, it’s even worse. Only about one in five senior leaders is a woman, and one in twenty-five is a woman of color.
Progress isn’t just slow—it’s stalled.
The latest report from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company is the largest study of its kind, with four years of data from 462 companies employing nearly 20 million people.
A closer look at the corporate pipeline
Since 2015, the first year of this study, corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation. From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level. And at every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines. Women of color are the most underrepresented group of all—behind white men, men of color, and white women.
Women are doing their part.
They’ve been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men for over 30 years. They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries as often as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, women are not leaving the workforce at noticeably higher rates to care for children—or for any other reason.
Yet only half of employees think that their company sees gender diversity as a priority and is doing what it takes to make progress—and 20% of employees think their company’s commitment to gender diversity feels like lip service.
Now companies need to do theirs.
This starts with making the business case for diversity, which research shows leads to better performance and more innovation. Then companies need to explain to employees why making a personal commitment to hire, promote, mentor and support women is good not just for business, but for their own careers. Whether CEO or entry-level employee, the person who can work better with half the population will get better results.
Once companies make the case, they need to follow through by reporting on progress and holding managers and leaders accountable for results. Most companies aren’t taking these basic yet critical steps to correct their gender gaps.
To make progress quickly, companies should focus on the two biggest levers: hiring and promotions.
As it stands now, women are disadvantaged from the beginning. At the entry level, when one might expect an equal number of men and women to be hired, men get 54% of jobs, while women get 46%. At the next step, the gap widens. Women are less likely to be hired and promoted into manager-level jobs; for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 79 women are. As a result, men end up holding 62% of manager positions, while women hold only 38%.
The fact that men are far more likely than women to get that first promotion to manager is a red flag. It’s highly doubtful that there are significant enough differences in the qualifications of entry-level men and women to explain this degree of disparity. More probably, it’s because of performance bias. Research shows that both men and women overestimate men’s performance and underestimate women’s. This may be particularly acute for women at the start of their careers, when their track records are shortest—and for women of color, who are up against both gender and racial bias.
Companies should foster an inclusive and respectful culture.
Women are more likely to face everyday discrimination—or microaggressions—like being subjected to demeaning comments, having to provide more evidence of their competence, or being mistaken for someone much more junior. For 64% of women—and 71% of lesbian women–microaggressions are a workplace reality. Sexual harassment also continues to pervade the workplace: 35% of women have experienced sexual harassment at some point in their career, from hearing sexist jokes to being touched in an inappropriately sexual way.
Women and men point to the need for companies to do more to create a safe and respectful work environment. Only 27% of employees say that managers regularly challenge biased language and behavior when they observe it. Forty percent say that disrespectful behavior toward women is often quickly addressed by their company. And just 32% think that their company swiftly acts on claims of sexual harassment.
Women are too often the “Only” one
Too few women results in too many “Onlys”—women who are the only or one of the only women in the room. One in five women is an Only, and they are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with more women. They are more likely to deal with microaggressions. They often feel on guard, pressure to perform, and left out. And they are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed during the course of their career.
These negative experiences take a toll on women Onlys. Despite having higher ambitions to be promoted and become a top executive, they are 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job than women who are not Onlys.
What women say
I sit on our promotion committee. One thing I see is that when women are given more scope and responsibility, and then they deliver success, it takes six months to a year for them to be recognized. Whereas when men get a new responsibility, I’ve seen them immediately get promoted or get recognized without creating any deliverable.
(VP, 6 years at company)
There needs to be a whole lot more accountability. Companies need to be accountable for developing, mentoring, and sponsoring women. And they have to become accountable for hiring more women so that the pipeline is full. Without that kind of accountability, talk about diversity is just lip service.
(SVP, 20 years at company)
I was in the elevator and pressed the button for the executive office. Someone said to me, ‘Um, no honey. That’s for the executive offices. The interns are going to this floor.’
(Director, 4 years at company)