Report: Women's Advancement in Workplace Losing Ground in Some Areas

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 10, 2017
Pay Gap

A study looking at 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, which included more than 70,000 individual surveys and a smaller number of in-person interviews, found that women's advancement in the workplace has either stalled or, in some areas, actually lost ground in 2017. The study, undertaken by McKinsey&Co and, found that, on average, women continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than men, and at senior levels, the gap in promotions is more pronounced for women of color.

Overall, according to the survey, while women are 52 percent of the population overall, they represent just 20 percent of C-suite executives (this drops down to 3 percent when considering only women of color). But the study notes that women are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline. Beyond the C-suite, women  make up 47 percent of the entry-level population, 37 percent of the manager-level population, 33 percent of the senior manager/director-level population, 29 percent of the VP-level population, and 21 percent of the senior VP-level population. This has changed little since the 2016 study: just 1 percent growth in entry-level and C-suite, and 3 percent reduction at the senior VP-level. 

The study noted that, since the vast majority of CEOs come from line roles, lack of representation "dramatically hurts women’s odds of reaching the very top." 

While this effects exists everywhere, the extent to which it applies varies between industries. For example, in healthcare, 73 percent of entry-level hires are women, and they remain the majority of the population until the VP-level at 44 percent; from there, women make up 40 percent of senior-VPs and 35 percent of C-suite executives. By contrast, the automotive and industrial manufacturing industry had 26 percent female representation at the entry-level, and 13 percent representation at the C-suite level. 

The financial and professional spheres tend to hover near the average. In "Asset Management and Institutional Investors" women make up 47 percent of entry-level positions and 17 percent of C-suite positions; in "Banking and Consumer Finance" women make up 51 percent of entry-level positions and 18 percent of C-suite positions; and in "Professional and Information Services (Including Legal)" women make up 48 percent of entry-level positions and 26 percent of C-suite positions. 

While the traditional answer to findings like this has been that women tend to focus more on family than men, the study found that, in fact, this difference does not seem to be rooted in company-level attrition. On average, women and men are leaving their organizations at about the same rate: 26 percent for men and 27 percent for women. For those who do leave their companies, 72 percent of women and 73 percent of men say they are taking a role at another company. The study also found that very few people in general leave to focus on family: 2 percent of women, and 1 percent of men. This is despite commonly-held perceptions that women will leave the company to start families, sometimes even coming in to get hired for maternity benefits to only later leave right away, a view that was said by NPR to have been echoed by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch

Further, despite asking for promotions as often as men, the study found that women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers, which has a dramatic effect on the pipeline at home; the study estimates that if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as men, the number of women at the SVP and C-suite levels would more than double. One factor in the lack of promotions, according to the survey, could be that women are less likely to get the support they need to advance: women get less advice on how to advance and have less frequent interactions with managers and senior leaders. It also notes that women are five times more likely to reply on a network that is mostly female, and since men tend to hold senior-level positions, this means that women are less likely to have access to people who can advance their careers. 

Things are even worse for women of color: they are less likely than white women to have managers advocate for them for an opportunity, to be given stretch assignments, to be given advice to help them advance, to get help navigating organizational politics and for managers to defend them or their work. 

The study also points to a perception gap between men and women in terms of progress. Overall, men seem to think the problem is not nearly as bad as women do. When asked whether an organization where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman, 50 percent of men said that women were well-represented in such a company while only 30 percent of women felt the same. Other findings found similar gaps in perception. For instance, while 34 percent of women feel that their company addresses disrespectful behavior quickly, 55 percent of men do. Meanwhile, 63 percent of men feel their companies are doing what it takes to improve gender diversity versus 49 percent of women, and 45 percent of men say managers make sure a diversity of voices is included in decision-making versus 32 percent of women. Gender diversity, though, does not seem to be a priority for many men: 47 percent said it was very important, versus 58 percent of women. 

"It is hard to imagine a groundswell of change when many employees don't see anything wrong with the status quo," said the study. 

In order to improve female representation in the workplace, the study said that companies must: 

* Make a compelling case for gender diversity;
* Invest in more employee training;
* Give managers the means to drive change;
* Ensure that hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair;
* Give employees the flexibility to fit work into their lives; and 
* Focus on accountability and results

"There are more solutions than ever for companies, and evidence shows that these efforts pay off. But too many peoplestill believe that gender diversity is a nice-to-have instead of a must-have. Until we treat gender diversity, and diversity more broadly, like the business imperative it is, true progress will be hard to achieve," said the study's conclusion. 

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