When it comes to promoting more women, progress has stalled

Posted at 12:33 PM, Oct 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-23 15:57:12-04

Women still aren’t getting ahead.

In corporate America, women are asking for promotions just as often as men. They are negotiating their salaries at near-equal rates. For years, women have graduated from college at higher rates than men.

But women are still less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues, according to new data from “Women in the Workplace,” a report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org.

“This disparity continues despite women doing their part,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in a statement. “The 2018 report shows that progress isn’t just slow — it’s stalled.”

This isn’t just happening in the C-suite. Fewer women can be found at every single level of corporate hierarchy, according to the report.

In fact, one in five women told McKinsey and that they are often the only woman — or one of the only women — in a room at work.

“The ‘only’ issue is a very striking result in our research this year. The representation numbers are getting stuck virtually year after year,” said Marie-Claude Nadeau, partner at McKinsey. “There just aren’t enough women in the workplace to make that issue more rare, and it’s not just at the top level. It’s actually happening much earlier in the pipeline.”

Nadeau points to the percentage of women promoted to lower manager roles.

“We see representation of women at the lower manager level getting stuck at around 38% year after year,” she said. “That’s not normal. We know if promotions and hiring were fair overall, we’d see a jump of about seven percentage points in five years in that manager representation. But it’s been the same number for the last five years.”

Being an “only”

The data shows women are significantly more likely than men to have an “only” experience. While 20% of women identify as “often being the only one in the room,” only 7% of men did.

The negative consequences of “onlyness” add up over time, contributing to the stalled progress, Sandberg noted. When a woman is the only female employee in the room, she’s much more likely to feel “on guard” or “under pressure,” as though her judgment is more likely to be questioned by the other people in the room.

“Only” women are also significantly more likely to face microaggressions, the consequences of which can be extremely damaging. Two-thirds of women overall reported they experienced microaggressions at work, compared to 90% of women who frequently found themselves in “only” situations.

According to the report, women who experience microaggressions with frequency are three times more likely to consider leaving their jobs altogether, compared to employees who don’t. They’re also twice as likely to have been sexually harassed.

Nadeau said the same holds true if a woman is the only person of color or member of the LGBTQ community in the room, and the “only” problem is even more common for women in senior positions or technical roles. According to the report, around 40% of women in those roles say they have had the “only” experience.

“The only experience is a reality for a lot of women, and thinking about ways it can be made less painful for women — that’s a big gap to address here,” she said.

The way forward

The promotion gap and the “only” experience combine to form a grim picture of women’s progress at work.

But companies can take action to correct the course now, Nadeau said, by relying on both “formal, structural levers” and “cultural levers.” A formal, structural lever involves a change in policy or work process; a cultural lever involves making sure all employees feel included.

The report suggests companies focus first on promoting groups of women at a time and creating cohorts or teams that allow women to work side-by-side.

But when they are promoted, Nadeau said employers should do so thoughtfully, considering the negative consequences women face when they might be the only woman, person of color or member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“We do see that women experience fewer microaggressions when they’re in a workplace where they feel like those things are more likely to be called out, where they feel their workplace is more inclusive,” she said.