Lean In Report Highlights America’s Blind Spots on Gender Inequality

Lean In Report Highlights America’s Blind Spots on Gender Inequality

The 2107 edition of the Women in the Workplace report, released on Tuesday by Lean In and McKinsey, finds that “women’s progress is slow—and may even be stalling—in part because many employees and companies fail to understand the magnitude of the problem.” The report, which is based on pipeline data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, shows that women remain underrepresented at every level, and women and color are even worse off:

Only one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in thirty is a woman of color. This disparity is not due to company-level attrition or lack of interest: women and men stay at their companies and ask for promotions at similar rates. Company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high for the third year in a row, but this commitment isn’t changing the numbers. The report points to a simple reason: we have blind spots when it comes to diversity, and we can’t solve problems that we don’t see or understand clearly.

Lean In and McKinsey find that corporate America has made little progress toward gender parity since last year’s report, which found that for every 100 women promoted past entry level positions, 130 men were promoted, and that women were less likely to be given challenging assignments, included in meetings, or afforded opportunities to interact with senior leaders. This year’s report focuses on the thorny issue that while these problems are not getting better, many Americans (particularly men) believe they have already been solved:

Many employees think women are well represented in leadership when they see only a few. Nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders is a woman. And remarkably, a third of women agree. It is hard to imagine a groundswell of change when many employees don’t see anything wrong with the status quo. …

Many men don’t fully grasp the state of women in the workplace. More than 60 percent of men say that their company is doing what it takes to improve gender diversity, while only 49 percent of women agree. Fifty percent of men say managers consider a diverse lineup of candidates to fill open positions, compared to just 35 percent of women. Further, men are less personally committed to gender diversity, and some even worry that diversity efforts disadvantage them.

This finding is confirmed in a survey published last week from the Pew Research Center on partisan and demographic divides among the US public, which found that while 55 percent of Americans say that “there are still significant obstacles that make it harder for women to get ahead than men,” there is a striking gender divide on this question: While 64 percent of women say those obstacles remain, only 46 percent of men do, whereas 51 percent of men told Pew “the obstacles that once made it harder for women than men to get ahead are now largely gone.”

In her coverage of the Women in the Workplace report, the Wall Street Journal’s Vanessa Fuhrmans asks some experts what companies can do to help close this perception gap. Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership at Cranfield School of Management in Bedfordshire, England, tells Fuhrmans that the group with the most power to make a difference in this regard is midlevel managers, as they are the ones responsible for giving women employees the stretch assignments that get them noticed, praising their achievements to senior leaders, and combating behavior that alienates women among their teams.

“The challenge for companies,” Fuhrmans adds, “is showing midlevel male managers they aren’t the problem—even if, sometimes, they are.” To that end, she cites Harvard University sociologist Frank Dobbin, who has found in his research that mandatory diversity training and anti-bias protocols have a tendency to backfire as managers resent compulsory sensitivity training and sometimes come out of it more hostile to disadvantaged groups than they were going in.

As an alternative to mandatory training for male managers that can make them feel like they are being personally blamed, Dobbin recommends enlisting them as sponsors for women and involving them voluntarily in efforts to solve the problem. Other experts have offered similar suggestions, that employers develop diversity champions among their white and male staff, or embed anti-bias mechanisms in business processes rather than trying to eliminate individuals’ unconscious biases.

CEB Corporate Leadership Council members can get more information on more effective ways to combat bias in the workforce via our webinars “Breaking Bias” with David Rock and “Overcoming Biases to Advance the Underrepresented Workforce.”