Why Women Still Aren't Getting to That C-Suite

An attractive young businesswoman having coffee while working at her office desk
An attractive young businesswoman having coffee while working at her office desk


If you were to base your understanding of the corporate world on movies and advertising (as it can be tempting to do), you might think women were barreling up the ranks in business faster than you can say "next CEO." Sadly, for those who can bear to look reality squarely in the eye, it's clear that we're a long way from actual workplace equality. A new study from Leanin.Org and McKinsey & Company underscores this reality, and reveals some surprises, as well.

The "Women in the Workplace" report is based on a survey of 30,000 employees in 118 companies; results are compared to a 2012 McKinsey study of employees in 60 companies. It has a lot more findings than I can go into here, but some of the ones that caught my eye were:

  • Women are underrepresented at "every level of the corporate pipeline," with less and less representation, relative to men, as they move up the ranks. Today they represent 45 percent of new hires and 17 percent of C-Suite denizens (a whopping 3 and 1 percent increase, respectively, since 2012) Now, some might assume this is because women become fed up and quit, perhaps because of a lack of work-life balance -- but statistically-speaking, that's not the case. Turns out, they leave their jobs at the same rate -- or less -- than men. And what does that imply? That at every level fewer women are promoted, and fewer women are hired. Just like the folks in your diversity department have been trying to tell you. Come on, folks, can't we get beyond this?

  • About those promotions. Many people understand that "line jobs" (those with profit and loss responsibility) are more likely to lead -- eventually -- to the C-suite than are "staff" jobs (human resources, legal, etc). So, who do you think tends to have those line jobs? Bingo! Actually, it turns out that at the entry level, women do hold a fair number of line jobs, though not as many as men. But as you move up the corporate ladder, you find women are much more likely to be in staff positions. So, women, you want to be CEO? Stick with the line job. On the other hand, don't. In an exquisitely painful Catch-22, women in staff jobs are much more likely to make it as far as the senior leadership level. Where they stall. Because those in senior leadership line jobs are the ones most likely to be tagged for the next step. Got that?
  • It's ok, though, because apparently women don't aspire to senior leadership positions at the same rates as men. That was a joke. Not the part about them not aspiring, the part about it being ok. You'd think women who choose the corporate world would be ambitious at pretty much the same rate as their male counterparts, no? So what is it? Is it work-family balance? Think again. In fact it turns out that men who aren't ambitious are more likely than women to cite work-family balance as the thing that tempers their aspirations -- women are more likely to cite "stress/pressure" overall. And -- talk about counter-intuitive -- fathers and mothers are both more likely than their childless peers to say they want to be promoted into a top executive role.
  • So, what is this stress that's holding women back? Apparently, say the study's authors, "women see a workplace skewed in favor of men." They see themselves as having fewer opportunities. They say they have missed out on assignments, promotions or raises because of their gender and report they are consulted less often on important decisions. In fact, senior-level women are about half as likely to say they are consulted on important decisions than their male peers. Put another way -- and I just want to make sure you got this -- senior level men are consulted on important decisions twice as often as their female colleagues. No wonder women are giving up. It's exhausting and humiliating to be ignored.
  • Finally, for those for whom work and life are out of balance, employee work-life programs and policies are apparently not yet the answer. Telecommuting is the only flexibility offering that is widely used by both men and women -- and it's still used by fewer than 50 percent of each in companies where it's offered. Only four percent of women with children under 18 have taken advantage of extended maternity leave programs where they're offered, and only one percent of men have taken advantage of extended paternity leave. Why? Well, it turns out that more than 90 percent of both women and men believe taking extended family leave will hurt their position at work, with more than half saying it will hurt "a great deal." Women, meanwhile, are still doing the bulk of work at home. In fact, women executives are 85 percent more likely to have a partner who works full-time than their male peers.
  • Clearly, Anne-Marie Slaughter is right. It's not enough for women to lean in. Something major has to change about work, and about society, as a whole. But it's more than just getting the role of caregiver recognized and supported. It's taking women seriously. And treating them equally. How crazy that this still has to be said!

    Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who works with companies to put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries and creates compelling, easy-to-read benefits, HR, diversity and general-topic employee communications. Find her at www.robinhardman.com.