‘Myths’ About Women In The Workplace Are Hard To Bust, Study Shows

There’s little question that progress has been made towards gender equity in the workplace-especially within senior leadership. But those gains are fragile and are offset by lagging equity gaps in the ranks of middle management. There’s much work left to be done. And that’s a very important message for corporate boards and their commitment to oversight of workforce culture.

That’s the ultimate conclusion of the ninth annual Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org, (“the Study”). While focused corporate diversity efforts over the last several years have accomplished much, true gender parity remains out of reach for those women in middle management whose opportunity for advancement “remains painfully out of reach”.

The Study provides a useful tool for corporate leaders to the extent that it reviews the progress made towards gender equity; flags the lagging progress in the middle of the promotion pipeline; confronts the frustrating “myths” about women in the workplace; and offers specific recommendations for those leaders to implement.

First, the good news. The Study confirms the sizeable gains made by women over the last several years within the senior leadership ranks. Since 2015, the number of women serving in the executive suite has grown from 17 to 28 percent, and the representation of women at other senior executive levels has similarly improved. As the Study observes, these gains validate targeted corporate diversity efforts – an example of “what companies can accomplish when they focus their efforts on a well-understood problem.”

But significant problems remain for leadership to address. The Study makes clear that progress is much less notable for women in the middle of the promotion pipeline. This is especially the case for women of color who suffer from a steep drop off in representation as they move up the pipeline from entry level positions to those at the senior executive level. Such a “weak middle” has a negative impact on the overall pipeline.

The Study also serves to educate corporate leaders by debunking four separate myths about the state of women at work.

Myth #1: While recent media coverage suggests that women are becoming less ambitious than men, the Study shows the quite the opposite. The data indicates that women remain highly ambitious at every stage of the workforce pipeline and are as interested as their male peers in being promoted. Indeed, women of color appear to be even more ambitious than white women, with younger women being particularly ambitious. Interestingly more flexible work options are seen as assisting women achieve their advancement goals.

Myth #2: The “broken rung” – not the proverbial “glass ceiling” – is the greatest barrier that women are confronting in their organizational advancement. Study data shows that for every 100 men promoted to the manager position, only 87 women were promoted; and the gap is worse with respect to women of color. The specific problem with this “broken rung” up the promotion ladder is that while women aren’t responsible for it, they suffer from it – by falling behind and becoming unable to catch up.

Myth #3: Contrary to popular belief, the “microaggression” is not insignificant. Rather, as the Study notes, microaggressions impact women at a significantly higher rate than men. To the extent that they are demeaning or dismissive (and rooted in gender and/or race) they can have significant negative psychological impact on women. A particular concern is the extent to which microaggression causes women to negatively modify behaviors as a protective device.

Myth #4: With the ongoing conversation on the value of remote or hybrid work, the Study concludes that its benefits are not limited to women, as old stereotypes suggest. Rather, women and men equally benefit from such flexibility. This reflects a broader perspective that workers view flexibility as an important corporate benefit and as critical to their company’s future success.

These “myth buster” points can be very helpful to corporate leaders struggling with an awareness of continuing gender equity issues in the workplace, and how best to address them. That help is supported by a series of recommendations for companies to consider as they confront these critical, lingering workplace culture issues. The recommendations include:

1. Tracking outcomes to improve women’s experience and progression

2. Empowering managers to be effective people leaders

3. Addressing microaggressions right on

4. Unlocking the full potential of flexible work

5. Fixing the broken rung, once and for all.”

Issues associated with workforce culture-including but not limited to those associated with gender equity-have in recent years been more broadly recognized as an important element of the board’s oversight responsibility. The National Association of Corporate Directors has in recent years adopted a particularly notable thought leadership position on “culture” related issues.

A positive workforce culture is considered to be a valuable corporate asset, which the board is expected in good faith to preserve. In addition, courts appear more willing to ascribe specific expectations to officers and directors with respect to key workforce culture issues (such as preventing sexual harassment).

The 2023 edition of the McKinsey/LeanIn.org survey is, as a result, an important resource for corporate boards across industry sectors, as well as for their executive leadership teams. Its conclusions are at the same time both encouraging (as to women in executive leadership positions) and frustrating (as to lagging progress in the middle of the promotion pipeline).

This dichotomy should serve as an incentive for boards and their executives to both stabilize those diversity efforts that have led to positive advancements in gender equity, and to identify solutions to the lingering and discouraging signs of trouble spots in women’ advancement.

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Michael Peregrine

I am a partner in the Chicago office of international law firm McDermott Will & Emery and earned my law degree at Northwestern University.

By Erin Wheeler
Erin Wheeler Career Consultant