Women in the Workplace study debunks myths holding women back

 October 30, 2023

Much progress is still required for advancing advance gender equality in the workplace. Women seek to excel in their careers, yet many internal and external barriers to success still prevail. Yet solutions to these issues could lie in data. Collecting and analyzing gender data helps identify inequalities and enables companies to make evidence-based decisions to improve the working lives of women. 

Vital data surrounding women in the workplace is gathered annually by McKinsey & Company in partnership with Lean In via their Women in the Workplace study. The report provides an intersectional look at the specific biases and barriers faced by Asian, Black, Latina, and LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities. 

Now in its ninth year, is the largest comprehensive study of women in corporate America and Canada. The study collected information from 276 participating organizations employing more than ten million people. More than 27,000 employees and 270 senior HR leaders shared insights on their policies and practices.

McKinsey & Company and Lean In have published this report annually to provide companies with the information they need to advance women and improve gender diversity. Over the past nine years, the report authors have collected information from almost 900 organizations employing more than 23 million people.

The 2023 study shows that despite gains at the top, women remain underrepresented at all levels. Across the corporate pipeline, women—and especially women of color—remain underrepresented. However, there is a growing bright spot in senior leadership. Since 2015, the number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17 to 28 percent, and the representation of women at the VP and SVP levels has also improved significantly. These hard-earned gains are encouraging but fragile. Progress is slower for women at the manager and director levels, creating a weak middle in the pipeline and impacting the majority of women in corporate America. And the “Great Breakup” continues for director level women: they are leaving at a higher rate than in past years—and at a notably higher rate than men at the same level. As a result of these two dynamics, there are fewer women in line for top positions.

The Women in the Workplace 2023 study debunks four key myths holding women back in the workplace, with an aim of eradicating outdated thinking and accelerating gender equality.

"A few of these myths cover old ground, but given the notable lack of progress, they warrant repeating. A few have re-emerged and intensified with the shift to flexible work. We hope highlighting them will help companies find a path forward that casts aside outdated thinking once and for all and accelerates progress for women," said Lean In.

Myth 1: Women are becoming less ambitious

Reality: Women are more ambitious than before the pandemic - and flexibility is fueling that ambition 

Headlines suggest that women’s ambition is diminishing. The report's data tell a different story. Women are as committed to their careers and as interested in being promoted as men at every stage of the pipeline. And at the director level - when the C-suite is in closer view - women and men are equally interested in senior leadership roles. Women who work hybrid or remotely are as ambitious as women who work on-site. In fact, flexibility allows women to pursue their ambitions. Lean In and McKinsey & Company report that one in five women say flexibility has helped them stay in their job or avoid reducing their hours. Meanwhile, a large number of women who work hybrid or remotely point to feeling less fatigued and burned out as a primary benefit.

Key Findings:

  • Young women are especially ambitious: 9 in 10 women ages 30 and under want to be promoted to the next level, and 3 in 4 aspire to become senior leaders.
  • Women of color are even more ambitious than women overall: 96% say that their career is important to them, and 88% want to be promoted to the next level.

Myth 2: The biggest barrier to women’s advancement is the "glass ceiling"

Reality: The “broken rung” is the greatest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership.

The glass ceiling is often cited as the primary reason more women don’t reach senior leadership. Lean In and McKinsey & Company's data show a different problem. For the ninth consecutive year, women’s biggest hurdle to advancement is at the first critical step up to manager: for every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, 87 women are promoted. And this gap is trending the wrong way for women of color: this year, 73 women of color were promoted to manager for every 100 men, down from 82 women of color last year. As a result of this “broken rung,” women fall behind and can never catch up with men. 

Key Findings:

  • Because of the broken rung, in a typical company, men end up holding 60% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 40%. As a result, there are fewer women to promote to director, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.
  • Progress for early-career Black women remains the furthest out of reach. This year, for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager positions, only 54 Black women were promoted. After rising to 82 in 2020 and 96 in 2021 - likely in response to a heightened focus on their advancement - the promotion rate for Black women to manager has fallen back to lower than it was in 2019.

Myth 3: Microaggressions have a “micro” impact

Reality: Microaggressions have a large and lasting impact on women.

Years of data show that women experience microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than men: they are twice as likely to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state. For women with traditionally marginalized identities, these slights happen more often and are more demeaning. As a result, the workplace is a mental minefield for many women. By leaving microaggressions unchecked, companies miss out on everything women have to offer and risk losing talented employees.

Key Findings:

  • Asian women are 7x more likely than white women and men to be mistaken for someone of the same race and ethnicity.
  • Black women are 3x times more likely than white women and men to have to code-switch.
  • LGBTQ+ women are 5x more likely to hide aspects of their personal lives and more than 2.5x more likely to worry about appearing professional than women and men overall.
  • Women with disabilities are far more likely to feel like they have to perform perfectly without being judged than women overall.
  • Women who experience microaggressions struggle to feel psychologically safe and “self-shield” by muting their voices, code-switching, or hiding important aspects of themselves. The stress caused by all this cuts deep: they are 4x more likely to almost always feel burned out and 3x more likely to think about leaving their companies.

Myth 4: It’s mostly women who want - and benefit from - flexible work

Reality: Men and women see flexibility as a “top 3” employee benefit and critical to their organization's success.

Workplace flexibility is no longer just an added bonus for some employees; it’s important to nearly everyone. High numbers of women and men also point to the same primary benefits of remote work: increased efficiency and productivity, better work/life balance, and less fatigue and burnout. On-site work also delivers important benefits - such as an easier time collaborating and a stronger personal connection to coworkers - but there are two notable trouble spots. On-site work disproportionately benefits men, who are more likely than women to be “in the know” and get the support they need to be successful. And while 77% of companies point to a strong organizational culture as a key benefit, only 39% of men and 34% of women who work on-site say a key benefit is feeling more connected to their organization’s culture.

Key Findings:

  • For women, working hybrid or remote is about a lot more than flexibility. When women work remotely, they face fewer microaggressions and have higher levels of psychological safety.
  • It’s not just women who see tangible upsides with remote work. 29% of women and 25% of men who work remotely say one of the biggest benefits is having fewer unpleasant interactions with coworkers. Even more - 53% of women and 36% of men - point to reduced pressure around managing their personal style or appearance.
  • Half of women and a third of men point to “offering significant flexibility in when and where employees work” as a top-three factor in their company’s future success.

Challenge barriers to women's career success

Additionally, Lean In's 50 Ways to Fight Bias helps companies combat bias in hiring and promotions and empowers employees to challenge bias when they see it. The card-based activity highlights 50 specific examples of gender bias in the workplace and offers research-backed recommendations for what to do. 



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