Women Are Underrepresented At Work, And Yes, There Are Ways To Fix It

By Rex Huppke
Chicago Tribune.

Workplaces are awash in statistics. Surveys and studies pop up weekly on every issue imaginable, diversity, health, engagement and job satisfaction, to name a few.

I approach such data with reasonable suspicion, not because I doubt the validity of the reports but because they are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, full of words and numbers, diagnosing nothing.

Workplaces tend to be reactive, not proactive. Toss a startling data point or two into a manager’s inbox, and that manager is likely to form an executive committee that will prepare a 10-point plan that will be revised 17 times. And in the end, the plan won’t actually address the problem because nobody really understood the problem in the first place.

Much of the workplace data that gets dispersed is information without context, red flags that fail to point us in any particular direction.

That’s not the case with a new study called “Women in the Workplace 2015,” a joint effort by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company.

Using data from a survey of 118 companies and nearly 30,000 workers, the report shows that women are underrepresented “at every level in the corporate pipeline.”

That, in and of itself, isn’t revelatory, though it does give us a current snapshot of the situation. What the study does well is explain why companies continue to struggle with gender diversity. It looks at the ways women and men perceive the workplace and the career paths in front of them and, most importantly, it offers advice for moving forward.

I imagine, even before I get to any numbers or recommendations, that some folks are rolling their eyes and saying, “Women have plenty of opportunities, everybody’s on the same footing now. I’m sick of hearing about this.”

First off, you’re wrong, women still face considerable obstacles on the path to senior leadership positions. Second, even if you think you’re right and I’m wrong, you should read a report like this, because you’ll learn something and it will put this issue in a broader context. You can still disagree, but at least it will be an informed disagreement.

Find the full report at

Here’s a quick overview of some of the findings:

-Companies are talking a good game when it comes to gender diversity, but employees don’t believe the hype. The study found that 74 percent of companies say gender diversity “is a top CEO priority,” but only about one-third of female employees think that’s true. (About half of male employees believe the commitment is there.)

-The professional networks that men and women form at work are predictably different _ male workers have primarily male networks and female workers have networks made up mostly of women. “Given that men are more likely to hold leadership positions, women may end up with less access to senior-level sponsorship.” About 60 percent of men reported that most of their career assistance has come from men, versus only 40 percent of women who say mainly men have helped them in their careers.

-The report notes that women perceive gender bias as being an obstacle, and that alone can discourage female employees from trying to advance in a company. “Women not only observe a workplace biased against them; they believe they are disadvantaged by it. They are almost three times more likely than men to say they have personally missed out on an assignment, promotion, or raise because of their gender. Compared with men, women also report that they are consulted less often on important decisions. These dynamics help explain why women appear to advance at lower rates than their male peers.”

So what can be done? The report has far more detailed advice than I have room to relay, but a few suggestions stood out:

-Check in regularly with the people you are managing and figure out “what is driving their desire (or lack of desire) to advance. Unless you understand what is affecting women’s ambitions, you cannot do anything to encourage them.”

-“Tap women and men equally to take on high-profile assignments and new opportunities, and push back if women say they’re ‘not ready’ or ‘not qualified.'”

-Set up mentorship or sponsorship programs that will bring greater gender diversity to each employee’s professional network.

-Monitor your company’s gender diversity by actually keeping track of what’s happening in terms of hiring, performance reviews and advancement, pay and attrition. As the report says, “It is hard to change what you do not measure.”

-Also, pay attention to the opinions and views of employees. The report identified several key areas to watch: job satisfaction; perception of meritocracy; desire to advance to next level; desire to advance to top executive roles; and perception of work/life balance.

Numbers can help us identify a problem. But the next step isn’t action. It’s learning. And understanding.

Women in the Workplace 2015 is worth reading, regardless of your view on gender diversity. But it’s also a fine example of the way workplace data should be presented _ with context, clarity and information that lights the path to a solution.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune

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