Why many women are not becoming senior leaders

by L&D28 Sep 2016

Women fall behind early in the business world and face rising challenges the more senior they become, according to new research.

Further, women are less likely to receive the first "critical promotion" to manager and are less likely to be hired into more senior positions.

Consequently, the higher you look in companies, the fewer women you see.

“We know that diverse teams perform better and inclusive workplaces are better for all employees, so we all have strong incentives to get this right,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and founder of LeanIn.Org.

The Women in the Workplace 2016 report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org in the United States is based on pipeline data and information on human resources practices from 132 companies that employ more than 4.6 million people.

It found that women negotiate for promotions and raises as often as men, but face pushback when they do. They are also far more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are "intimidating", "too aggressive", or "bossy".

Women also receive informal feedback less frequently than men—despite asking for it as often.

Despite company commitment to gender diversity being at an all-time high, companies are struggling to put their commitment into practice. Indeed, less than 50% of employees say their company is doing what it takes to improve diversity, and many employees do not see gender diversity as a personal priority.

The report identified a number of steps companies can take to further promote gender diversity:

  • They can make a stronger case for gender diversity, explaining why it matters and how it benefits everyone.
  • They can also ensure their hiring, promotion, and performance review polices are fair, and invest in training so employees know the steps they can take to promote gender diversity.
  • They can place more emphasis on accountability and set gender targets so it's easier to track and make progress.
Charles Scharf, CEO of Visa, said that advancing diversity and inclusion is a strategic imperative for his company.

“Data from this Women in the Workplace study has reaffirmed the reality that there is still a lot more work to be done in both investing in and advancing women in the workplace,” said Scharf.

“Dialogue is critical, along with swift action. As one of several initiatives we have in place to advance this discussion, Visa recently joined a consortium that brings together companies who are as committed as we are to addressing the issues around equal pay to ensure the right questions are being asked."

Some of the key findings include:
  • For every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are promoted
    Promotion rates for women lag behind those of men, and the disparity is the largest at the first step up to manager. As a result, far fewer women end up on the path to leadership.
  • Women get less access to senior leaders
    Women and men both view sponsorship by senior leaders as essential for success. Yet women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do—and this gap widens as women and men advance.
  • Women ask for feedback as often as men—but are less likely to receive it
    Despite asking for informal feedback as often as men do, women report they receive it less frequently. Moreover, there appears to be a disconnect in the way managers convey difficult feedback. Most managers say they rarely hesitate to give difficult feedback to both women and men, but women report they receive it less frequently.  
  • There are steps companies can take to promote gender equality
    Although there's no "one size fits all" solution, the report identifies steps companies can take to advance gender equality: make a compelling case for gender diversity; ensure hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair; invest in more employee training; and focus on accountability and results.
  • Women are less interested in becoming top executives—and see the pros and cons of senior leadership differently
    Only 40% of women are interested in becoming top executives, compared to 56% of men. Women and men worry equally about work-life balance and company politics. However, women with and without children are more likely to say they don't want the pressure, and women who want a top job anticipate a steeper path than men who do.
  • Companies are highly committed to gender diversity, but struggling to put it into practice
    Less than half of employees think their company is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity. In addition, less than a third of employees say senior leaders regularly communicate the importance of gender diversity and are held accountable for making progress.
Related stories:

Gender leadership diversity linked to better performance: Study