What’s Holding Women Back in the Workplace?

By Nikki Waller and Joanne S. Lublin.     Source: The Wall Street Journal

WW-AA658_AMBITI_P_20150925125729Why aren’t there more women in the upper ranks of corporate America?

Cue the broken record: Women rein in career plans to spend more time caring for family. What’s more, they are inherently less ambitious than men and don’t have the confidence that commands seats in the C-suite.

Not so fast.

Something else is happening on the way to the top. Women aren’t abandoning their careers in large numbers; motherhood, in fact, increases their appetite for winning promotions; and women overall don’t lack for ambition and confidence that they can take on big jobs. Yet when asked whether they want a top role in their companies or industries, a majority of women say they would rather not grab the brass ring.

Those are the findings of a major new study of women in the workplace conducted by LeanIn.Org <http://LeanIn.Org>  and McKinsey & Co. The research, which gathered data on promotions, attrition and trajectories from 118 companies and surveyed nearly 30,000 men and women, is among the largest efforts to capture attitudes and data about working women. The study involved major North American companies and North American units of global ventures headquartered elsewhere. It reveals sharply different views of the workplace, in which women say they experience a playing field at work that is anything but level.

Roughly equal numbers of men and women say they want to be promoted–78% and 75%, respectively. But as men’s desire for big jobs intensifies in the course of their careers, only 43% of women said they want to be a top executive, compared with 53% of men. Perhaps most startling, 25% of women feel their gender has hindered their progress, a perception that grows more acute once women reach senior levels.

Overall, just over a quarter of female survey respondents say that their organization is a meritocracy. Women certainly face a steeper path to the top than men do, making up just 17% of the population of the executive suite, the end result of promotion patterns that favor men at every level. And attrition isn’t the issue, the study found–women are less likely than men to leave their companies, particularly once they reach the senior and executive levels.

In the end, according to the survey, women are 15% less likely than men to be promoted to the next level–and at the current pace, it will be more than a century before there is gender equality in the C-suite.

The message for corporations: There’s a lot of work to do, and it starts at the top.

While three-quarters of companies tracked by Lean In and McKinsey named gender diversity as a priority of the chief executive, fewer than half of employees surveyed said it was high on their own CEO’s priority list. Only a third of men and women say that advancing women is a priority for their direct boss–a phenomenon that Stanford University professor Shelley Correll calls the “frozen middle.”

A key to thawing that middle is “getting managers to see that some of their actions are creating barriers to women in ways that they don’t intend,” says Dr. Correll, a sociology and organizational-behavior professor who directs Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. But it won’t be easy, in part due to the polarized views of the workplace. Some 86% of men said that women have as many or more opportunities than men do. Far fewer women–57%–agreed.
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Gracia Martore, chief executive of Tegna Inc.,…says many companies would rather “pay lip service” to gender diversity than hold bosses accountable. Tegna is the broadcasting and digital-media company that remained after the spinoff of Gannett Co. GCI 3.47 % ‘s publishing arm earlier this year.

A lot of businesses go through the motions of listening to their female staffers, says Ms. Martore, who rose through Gannett management and served as its chief before the split. “I am not sure those women see the tangible steps that are being taken to put the money and the resources of the organization where their mouth is.” Ms. Martore ties managers’ pay packages to how well they recruit and promote women, and two of the company’s top six leaders are female.

One area of focus is pushing more women toward roles that matter to the company’s bottom line. So-called line roles lead more directly to the C-suite, Lean In and McKinsey found, but senior women are still more likely than men to be found in staff positions, such as human resources, legal affairs, information services and public relations.

While a majority of women hold line roles early in their careers, most occupy staff roles when they reach the VP level, typically the first rung of executive ranks. That’s true for 52% of women, compared with 39% of men, the Lean In and McKinsey study found. This scarcity of women in senior management line posts is especially stark in tech. About 9% of women have C-suite line positions in that industry.

Some companies are trying to attract more women to those jobs. At insurer Prudential Financial Inc., PRU 0.60 % Judy Rice has worked to educate female colleagues about line roles since she became executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Prudential’s asset-management unit in January 2013. Ms. Rice, who spent eight years running the company’s mutual-fund business, observed that midlevel women hesitated to seek high-level jobs due to their lack of profit-and-loss experience. “If they feel they don’t have that one attribute, it won’t give them the confidence to raise their hand and go after that leadership role,” she says.

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