Gender equality at work hits plateau, study finds

The number of women in the corporate world remains disproportionately low.

Progress towards closing the gender gap in corporate North America has not only slowed, but has stalled: Women, especially those of colour, remain largely underrepresented, recent research shows.

One in five senior leaders is a woman, while one in 25 is a woman of colour, according to Women in the Workplace 2018, a study conducted by the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company in partnership with LeanIn.Org, a nonprofit headquartered in Palo Alto, California, that encourages women to pursue their ambitions. The research shows there has been almost no progress since 2015, the first year this annual study was done.

“Most companies say that they’re highly committed to gender and racial diversity, but we found that many are still not treating diversity as a business imperative,” said Marie-Claude Nadeau, a San Francisco-based partner with McKinsey and co-author of the report. “Only half of employees think that their company sees gender diversity as a priority. One in five say their company’s commitment to gender diversity feels like lip service.”

The study drew on data from 279 companies in the US and Canada that employ more than 13 million people, as well as on a survey of more than 64,000 employees and a series of qualitative interviews conducted by researchers. Here are three takeaways from the report, released in October:

Women are left behind from the start. Women are less likely to be hired into entry-level or manager-level positions, and they are far less likely to be promoted to manager; 62% of those positions are held by men. Therefore, there are fewer women to promote to management and even fewer to hire from outside who have the right experience.

“So even though hiring and promotion rates improve at more senior levels, women can never catch up — we’re suffering from a ‘hollow middle’. This should serve as a wake-up call: Until companies close the early gaps in hiring and promotions, women will remain underrepresented,” the report states.

If nothing changes, the number of women at manager level will increase by only one percentage point during the next 10 years — up to 39% from 38% today, according to the report. But if companies start hiring and promoting women at equal rates as men, the gender gap would narrow more significantly during the same 10 years — to 48% women versus 52% men at manager level, which is the current representation now at entry-level positions.

The idea that the ratio could increase a mere percentage point is hard to digest for Helen Woolnough, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Sylvia Pankhurst Gender and Diversity Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Organisations need to think more creatively about diverse leadership pathways rather than unbroken, linear, and hierarchical pipelines from which women all too often disappear,” she said.

Where possible, Woolnough said, standard practice should be flexible roles and more senior management positions on a part-time or job-share basis. Traditionally, flexible roles have been associated with the needs of parents and other caregivers, she said, but businesses are increasingly recognising the benefits of flexible roles: They are key to employee recruitment and retention, staff motivation, and employee engagement.

“When roles are not advertised as flexible, women are often put off from applying, be this a new role or a promotion,” Woolnough said. “Ultimately this is another way in which women may be knocked off leadership pathways. Creating diverse leadership involves commitment to the synchronisation of work and home across a range of life and family contexts.”

Women are often “onlys”. One in five women say they are usually the only or one of only a few women in the room at work; it’s twice as common for senior-level women. “Women who are ‘onlys’ are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women,” the report states.

More than 80% of women who are “onlys” say they have experienced microaggressions — everyday discrimination such as being subjected to demeaning comments — compared with 64% of women as a whole, according to the report. They are also more likely to have their abilities challenged. And they are nearly twice as likely to be sexually harassed, according to the research.

“Not surprisingly, given the negative experiences and feelings associated with being the odd woman out, women ‘onlys’ are also 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job,” the report states.

To reduce the number of women who are among the only, businesses must focus on adding women until they reach parity, as well as being mindful about how they move women through the organisation, according to the report.

“One approach is to hire and promote women in cohorts; another is to cluster women on teams. As opposed to staffing one woman on a number of teams, companies should consider putting groups of two to three women on teams together,” the report states.

But researchers warn against clustering women in roles that are traditionally dominated by women, such as human resources and communications, to avoid gender stereotypes. The goal is to staff women across the board.

Companies must treat gender diversity as a priority. Women have been doing their part, including earning more bachelor’s degrees than men for decades, research shows. “They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men,” the report states.

Now it’s up to companies to change. “To achieve equality, companies must turn their good intentions into concrete action,” Nadeau said. Setting goals is the first step to making gender diversity a priority. Tracking progress by gender, race, and gender and race combined, sharing results, and rewarding success are also key.

The report found only 38% of companies set targets for gender representation, while only 10% set targets for women of colour; only 12% share a majority of gender diversity metrics with their employees; and only 42% hold senior leaders accountable for making progress towards gender parity, and even fewer hold managers and directors accountable.

Ensuring fair hiring and promotions are vital as well. “Companies can set diversity targets for hiring and promotions, use tools to reduce bias when reviewing résumés, and require diverse slates of candidates for both external hiring and internal promotion,” Nadeau said.

Researchers say that closing the gender gap is “an economic necessity” and that programmes and policies to reduce bias and ensure fairness benefit more than just women. “They benefit everyone,” the report states. “In the best workplaces, the most talented people can rise, no matter who they are. That should be the expectation for every workplace, everywhere.”

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at