Why Women Don't Get Promoted

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Nearly half of all entry-level employees at U.S. companies are women. At the top of the food chain, however, less than a quarter of C-suite executives are women. For women of color, who make up 17% of the entry-level workers, only one in 25 (about 4%) makes it to the C-suite.

The path from an entry-level job to a corner office narrows at every step on the corporate ladder, according to a new study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey, based on surveys with more than 64,000 employees. While 48% of entry-level jobs are filled by women, the percentage of women promoted to manager positions falls to just 38% of all employees at this first rung up the ladder. And the path has not improved much in the past three years. As the authors note, “Progress isn’t just slow. It’s stalled.”

That imbalance ripples up through the higher rungs of the ladder. Women account for 34% of employees in senior manager or director jobs, 29% of vice-presidents, 23% of senior vice-presidents and 22% of C-suite executives. The LeanIn/McKinsey report sums it up this way:

Starting at the manager level, there are significantly fewer women to promote from within and significantly fewer women at the right experience level to hire in from the outside. So even though hiring and promotion rates improve at more senior levels, women can never catch up—we’re suffering from a “hollow middle.”

The women surveyed say they get less day-to-day support and less access to their senior managers. They have to deal with more harassment and everyday discrimination, and they believe it is harder for them to advance. For women of color and lesbian women, the playing field is even more tilted against them. Two of five black women, for example, say they never have a substantive interaction with their bosses about their work, and three in five say they never have a social interaction with senior leaders.

Just over half of women think that reporting sexual harassment would be effective or helpful, compared with 70% of men. Nearly a third of women are skeptical that reporting an incident of sexual harassment would lead to a fair investigation, compared with about half as many men.

Being the only woman in the room (the report dubs them Onlys) was reported by 20% of the women surveyed, and double that percentage of women in senior management roles and technical fields reported that they were Onlys.

Three times as many women as men (24% to 8%) think that gender has played a role in their failure to get a raise, promotion or opportunity to advance. Twice as many women (29% to 15%) expect getting those things to be harder because of their gender.

Women also tend to believe that their workplaces are less meritocratic than do men. This is especially true of black women. Less than a third (32%) of black women think that promotions at their companies are fair and objective compared to half of all men.

Motivations for high-level corporate jobs also differ between men and women. Some 70% of men say their motivation is to have an impact on the company’s success, compared to 59% of women who say the same thing. More women (42%) than men (30%) see the drive for a top job as an opportunity to be a role model for others who are like them. Among black and lesbian women, this motivation is even stronger (49% for black women, 48% for lesbians).

The report concludes that organizations need to walk their talk. One in five employees thinks the company is only paying lip service to gender diversity, even though three-quarters of companies have articulated a business case for diversity. LeanIn.org and McKinsey recommend six actions companies can take to increase gender diversity:

  1. Get the basics right—targets, reporting, and accountability
  2. Ensure that hiring and promotions are fair
  3. Make senior leaders and managers champions of diversity
  4. Foster an inclusive and respectful culture
  5. Make the “Only” experience rare
  6. Offer employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives

The full Women in the Workplace 2018 study, including a detailed discussion of the recommended actions, case studies, and methodology, is available on the web.

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