Why America's corporate gender gap isn't improving: 9 findings on gender disparity and how leaders can bridge the divide

Women leaders are a critical asset to organizations that want to perform at the highest levels. However, at the current rate of progress bridging the corporate gender divide, it will take 25 years to reach gender parity at the senior vice president level and 100 years in the C-suite, according to new findings from McKinsey & Company and Lean In.

The "Women in the Workplace" comprehensive study is part of a long-term partnership between Lean In and McKinsey & Company. Nearly 30,000 employees and 118 companies participated in the 2015 study.

Celia Huber, a director and leader in the North American Healthcare Systems & Service Practice at McKinsey & Company, took time to discuss some of the findings from the report and offered suggestions for leaders on how to set their companies on the track toward gender parity.

1. Women are underrepresented at every level, and the disparity is greatest in senior leadership. For instance, in 2015, women made up 45 percent of the entry level workforce, 23 percent of senior vice presidents and 17 percent of C-suite executives.

2. Women are, on average, leaving their organizations at the same or lower rates than men. Notably, women in leadership roles are more likely to stay with their company longer than their male counterparts. Senior vice president-level women are 20 percent less likely to leave, and women in the C-suite are nearly half as likely to leave their company.

Despite similar rates of attrition for men and women, Ms. Huber says there are several barriers that prevent women from obtaining senior leadership roles at the same rate as men. One has to do with sponsorship and support systems.

"Men usually have a predominantly male network, while women generally have female-oriented networks," says Ms. Huber. "But because there are fewer women in top leadership roles, women's networks tend to be smaller with fewer people who can advocate for them and help them advance."

Ms. Huber also noted that corporate policies — such as those related to flexible work environments, closing the pay gap and better paternity and maternity leave — also impact women's paths to the executive level.

3. Fewer women hold roles that lead to the C-suite. While the majority of manager-level women hold line roles that are closely related to core operations, by the vice president level, more than half of women hold staff roles, or positions in support functions. A majority of men hold line roles at every level. Because line roles more closely relate to a company's core operations, the disparity can impede a woman's ability to reach senior leadership roles.

4. Men and women have similar levels of desire to become a top executive, though men indicated slightly higher desire at the entry, middle management and senior management levels. The primary reasons both male and female respondents gave for not wanting a top leadership role had to do with the stress or pressure associated with the role and concerns regarding work and family life balance.

5. Black, Hispanic and Asian women are more interested in being promoted than white employees of both genders. On average, women from these minority groups are 43 percent more interested in becoming a top executive than white women and 16 percent more interested than white men. They are similarly interested in getting promoted but less interested in becoming a top executive compared with men of the same ethnicity.

6. Women generally believe their gender limits their potential to advance. Women are nearly four times more likely than men to think they have fewer opportunities to advance in their companies because of their gender. They are also almost three times more likely to say they have been passed over for an assignment, promotion or raise because of their gender.

"When we think about companies that want to invest time and money into improving gender diversity, we suggest five things," says Ms. Huber. "The first is sponsoring high-potential and high-performing women. Second is investing in women's initiatives; in many companies and geographies, women have very few female role models with whom they can get together and learn how to make it through the pipeline. The third suggestion is setting gender targets for the organization and staying accountable to them. Fourth is recognizing bias and increasing transparency in decision-making. Finally, we suggest increasing flexibility in employees' work lives."

Importantly, closing the pay gap for the same jobs is an essential prerequisite to any of these initiatives, Ms. Huber says.

7. Seventy-four percent of companies say gender diversity is a top CEO priority, but less than half of workers believe gender diversity is a top priority for their CEO, and only one-third view it as a top priority for their direct manager. Furthermore, women are less likely than men to see gender diversity as a top priority for their manager.

According to Ms. Huber, to translate the importance of gender diversity from the C-suite throughout the organization, CEOs need to "walk the talk."

"Some CEOs need to have this conversation more publicly," she says. "It depends on where they are in their industry. Employees, while they hear CEOs say gender equality is a priority, don't see it at the top level of their companies when they look up at the leadership team. This creates skepticism about whether the leadership is really doing anything about it. To make meaningful progress, CEOs must move beyond talking about moving the needle and think about the issues and what actions they can take in their specific organization."

8. Significantly fewer men believe women have fewer opportunities at work. While 70 percent of male employees think gender diversity is important, only 12 percent believe women have fewer opportunities at work. Men are also less likely than women to think their organization should do more to increase gender diversity, and 13 percent of men think it is harder for them to advance than women because they are disadvantaged by gender-diversity programs. 

9. The vast majority of men and women are wary of taking extended family leave. More than 90 percent of both men and women believe taking extended family leave will have a negative impact on their position at work, and more than half believe it will hurt them significantly.

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