10/10/2017 13:44 SAST | Updated 10/10/2017 14:31 SAST

Women Are Falling Behind At Work -- And It's Not For Lack Of Effort

A US study shows women are not advancing in corporate careers, while Trump reverses progress for women in other areas.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg delivers a speech during a visit in Paris on January 17 2017.
Philippe Wojazer/ Reuters
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg delivers a speech during a visit in Paris on January 17 2017.

As the Trump administration rolls back progress for women on equal pay, birth control and Title IX, you'd think perhaps the corporate world ― which provides a lot of lip service on feminism ― would offer up some glimmer of hope when it comes to gender equality.


Women's progress in the job world is stalling ― even moving backward ― according to a major survey released on Tuesday by the nonprofit women's group and consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

For the third year in a row, the survey has found that women are under-represented at every level in corporate America, with fewer and fewer ascending the corporate ladder.

Forty-seven percent of entry-level workers are women, according to the data, but only 37 percent are managers. Just 29 percent of vice-presidents are women, and women make up 20 percent of C-suite executives (those jobs that have the word "chief" in the title).

These numbers are virtually unchanged from 2016, and are either stalled or up only slightly since 2015, when LeanIn, the women's group cofounded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, released its first study. In 2015, women had 17 percent of C-suite jobs. The number of female senior vice-presidents has actually declined to 21 percent from the previous two years.

"It's a sad story," Rachel Thomas, the president and cofounder of LeanIn, told HuffPost. "We're far from parity, and progress is way too slow."

For women of colour, the numbers are devastating. While 17 percent of entry-level employees are women of colour, they comprise just 3 percent of executives in the C-suite. "Women of colour pay for double discrimination," Thomas said.

Women of colour get even less support and mentoring from their senior colleagues than white women, the study found. Yet the research also suggests that women of colour are more ambitious than their white counterparts.

For years now, women have shouldered a lot of the blame for their lack of success in climbing the corporate ladder and shattering the glass ceiling. Indeed, the title of one of the most successful books about women in business is "Lean In", putting the onus on women to act.

But even the LeanIn group agrees that, at this point, "leaning in" isn't the problem. "Women are stalling because we have age-old stereotypes about women and men," Thomas said.

This year's study was conducted in three parts: First, 222 companies with at least 1,000 US employees shared so-called "pipeline data" ― breakdowns of employees by sex and race at different points on the career ladder, including entry-level, managerial, senior executive and C-suite employees.

Separately, human resource teams within those organisations filled out a survey about policies and practices. Finally, 70,000 workers at 82 participating companies filled out a more detailed survey.

According to this year's study ― and counter to the conventional wisdom ― women ask for promotions and raises at the same rate as men. In fact, women at the senior level ask more frequently. Yet women are 18 percent less likely to get promoted, according to the findings.

What's going on? Thomas points to research that shows that women are underestimated at work and men are overestimated.

But you only need to look at presidential politics to intuitively grasp this dynamic. If President Donald Trump holds a press conference without insulting anyone, he's hailed as presidential. Meanwhile, if former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton writes about her election loss and doesn't spend 100 percent of the time apologising for losing, she's viewed as a sore loser.

This difference in how men and women are viewed shows up in performance reviews and keeps women from advancing, Thomas said. "Women are playing on an uneven playing field," she said.

Women are also less likely to get advice from senior leaders on how to move up and are less likely to to interact with senior leaders at their companies ― two surefire strategies to schmooze your way up.

Part of the reason for the lack of interaction has to do with bias: Men are more likely to help out other men, because they see themselves in their younger peers.

Men are also increasingly hesitant to offer one-on-one mentoring to women, as awareness of sexual harassment and discrimination creates a fear (unfounded) that mixed gender interactions are risky.

The LeanIn study challenges another assumption about why women don't advance: the idea that we drop out of the workforce to care for children. Fewer than 2 percent of survey respondents ― women and men ― said they planned to leave the workforce to devote themselves to their families.

"The age-old conventional wisdom that women are leaving to focus on family, we're just not seeing that in our data," Thomas said.

But parenting does affect women's careers in other ways, Thomas points out. Women are likely more overworked because they do more work at home. Fifty-four percent of women said they do all or most of the household work compared with 22 percent of men, according to LeanIn's survey.

This could lead to less of a desire to advance up the ladder, Thomas said.