This article was originally published in Forbes on 18 October 2022
The Women in the Workplace 2022 study is the largest study of women in corporate America, produced by a joint effort of LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company. Report co-authors, LeanIn.Org's co-founder and CEO, Rachel Thomas, and McKinsey's Senior Partner, Lareina Yee, shared their insights and interpretation of the findings. The top-line conclusion? We're in the midst of a great breakup.
"For the first time in all the years I've been working this report, women leaders — directors, vice presidents, and senior vice presidents — are walking away at higher rates than men," says Yee. "Why are they doing that? Because women are ambitious. They are breaking up with companies that can't offer leadership opportunities."
Women leaders are just as likely as their male counterparts to aspire to senior-level roles; however, they often experience microaggressions that undermine their authority. These behaviours send a powerful signal that advancement will be harder. So, they walk.
"Loyalty has its limits," says Yee. "Women have been facing the same day-to-day challenges. For example, close to 40% of women we surveyed said someone else took credit for their ideas. Can you imagine sitting in a meeting and the person next to you is taking credit for your idea, something that you've worked really hard to present? So when we say 'women are demanding more,' we mean that in a really good way."
Thomas agrees. "It's really about all employees demanding more. During the pandemic, we saw what companies can do when they really step up. They embraced flexibility in a way we never thought was possible. I think all employees saw that and said, 'We want to keep moving forward. We don't want to return to business as usual.' We're seeing women leaders demand that — which I think is a very fair word to use because we have a right to demand a workplace that works for us. We're seeing them demand more because, in a lot of the ways, they're doing more of the work that companies need to step up efforts in." This work Thomas refers to includes well-being and diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) efforts.
DE&I efforts should never be done off the side of someone's desk, but it's women leaders who are twice as likely as male leaders to spend substantial time on DE&I work. What's more, 40% of women report that their DE&I work isn't acknowledged in performance reviews. That statistic begs an interesting question: if these efforts were formally rewarded, would men be more likely to participate?
"Yes," says Thomas. "Stepping back, here's what we know. We know
companies are placing more emphasis on employee well-being and
diversity, equity and inclusion. We know they're expecting their
managers to do more in those areas. So to answer your question, leading
companies absolutely need to put their money where their mouth is when
it comes to the things they prioritize. And the good thing about that is
that if they incentivize all managers to show up as good people
managers and champions of diversity, everybody will feel better about
work and all ships will rise. Then those women managers and leaders
already doing that important, critical extra work will get the
recognition that they deserve."
In terms of managers being expected to do more to support employee well-being, 80% of companies agreed this was the case. Yet, less than 50% of manager training gives leaders the tools to tackle important issues impacting well-being, such as burnout, morale, and fair promotional practices. How can businesses mitigate this? Has what we value in a leader shifted in recent years?
"I think the shift is that leadership expectations are more holistic," says Yee. "But putting it into action is where you see the delay. Is it in the performance management system? Are you role-modelling the right behaviours? Are you rewarding people differently?"
"The women that we met, the over 40,000 people that we've talked to, are incredibly ambitious to be leaders," says Yee. But, these young female leaders will walk if advancement options are not available. 58% of women under 30 say advancement has become more important to them over the past two years, compared to just 31% of women leaders. But they are unwilling to accept this advancement at the cost of their work-life balance, flexibility, or well-being.
"These younger women are experiencing the same preferences as senior women, but just at a greater intensity," says Yee. "They care even more that wellness is part of the workplace. They care even more that diversity and inclusive behaviors are part of the workplace. They think of that as foundational. So they are questioning that if that's not there — what kind of an organization is this?"
Women leaders also want to work on their own terms. "We've seen a future state that we like," says Thomas. "We're showing up in the workplace as the leaders companies need, but we want to start working on our terms. Organizations that switch their mindset to results-focused and not a where-and-when focus will be the ones that ultimately win. Not just with women leaders, but with everybody in the end."
While we're on the subject of providing an environment where our future female leaders can thrive, women leaders are twice as likely as male leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior. This is what Thomas calls a "great-terrible" finding.
"They're great in that they're highlighting a problem we need to address, but the problem itself is terrible."
Yee agrees. "Don't be surprised that you can be a fairly senior person and still run across a comment you would have received at the beginning of your career."
LeanIn has two tips for people to utilize in this instance that Thomas shares. "One is asking a very matter-of-fact question, such as 'Why do you think that's true?' That often challenges someone to think about what they just said, and what was underlying it, and a lot of times people will find their own bias in there."
The other is to state the facts. "This is when you tell someone you understand the mistake they made, but you clarify your position." In short: ask a probing question, and state the facts.
For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level to manager, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted. "We report on this broken rung every year," says Yee, "but unfortunately we can't report that it got a lot better this year. We've got incredibly ambitious and talented women, and we're not making it easy for them to flourish."
Yee also highlighted a surprise and disappointment that we haven't seen more traction on women of color. "Given how much racial equity has been in the spotlight over the last couple of years, you would have thought that all boats would rise. While there have been some improvements at the front of the funnel with recruiting, it's disappointing to not see more traction throughout the ranks. Just one in 20 senior leaders are women of color."
The report provides several solutions for fixing this broken rung. One is to make sure women and men are put up for promotions at similar rates and monitor the results. Another is to add performance metrics for DE&I efforts. Also important is to put safeguards in place to make sure that those who take advantage of remote or hybrid work options are evaluated based on measurable results, not when or where they work.