While women are making strides in career progression and growing representation at the highest level of leadership, there is a “broken rung” holding many of them back from making it past middle management.
Providing research on this roadblock, McKinsey's annual report on the state of women in the workplace serves as a critical barometer for workplace equality and gender representation. This comprehensive report delves into various aspects of women's roles and the levels of equality they experience in professional environments. However, it is important to note that when looking at women’s experiences in the workplace, we must look at it through the lens of intersectionality. Different groups of women, including white women, women of color, disabled women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, have different experiences that are greatly impacted by their backgrounds. Therefore, we cannot group them as one if we want a holistic view of the workplace and women’s career progression.
In this article, we will explore the role of women in the workplace, from the rise of women in C-suite roles to the persistent challenges women face, with a specific focus on how hybrid work has changed these dynamics. We'll dissect the state of gender equality in modern workplaces based on the data collected and provide actionable steps for greater inclusion.
Women in the workplace: data overview
McKinsey publishes an annual report about the state of women in the workplace, specifically focusing on their role and the levels of equality present in the workplace. This spans everything from how often women were promoted to what levels of seniority they were promoted to. The data is collected from a cross-sectional lens, comparing the experience of white women to women of color, disabled women, and those a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Let’s explore some of the key findings and how they are impacting women in the workplace.
Women’s representation in the C-suite is at a high
One of the areas in which we are seeing major progress for women is at the highest levels of leadership, C-suite executives like CEO and CFO. The levels have reached 28% in comparison to 17% in 2015. This reveals women’s success in getting past the glass ceiling in recent years. However, this does not mean they are represented proportionally, as men still make up the majority of executive leaders. Data from Harvard Law School shows that:
“47% of the US workforce benchmark, they account for just 28% of all executives in the top leadership teams of the S&P 100. Comparably, men account for 53% of the US workforce benchmark and account for 72% of the executives in those top leadership teams.”
The middle of the career pipeline is hard to break through
While the rate of women making it to the C-suite is higher than ever, it is still less than men’s and is likely because career progression stagnates in the middle of the pipeline. This is at the manager and director levels, which are necessary stepping stones to the highest leadership positions. At these levels, the representation of women has only increased by about 3%. But without women growing at the middle levels of leadership, there will consequently be fewer women at the very top. Additionally, women at the director level are leaving their roles at a higher rate than before and at a higher rate than men. This fact, in conjunction with a lack of upward mobility for women at this level, is hindering career progression. However, there is a sliver of hope in the fact that dedication to growing in their careers and reaching higher levels of achievement is just as strong for women as it is for men, especially women under 30.
Women of color are still underrepresented in the workplace
An unfortunate reality that emerges when looking at studies of women in the workplace over time is that women of color are continuously underrepresented. With the lens of intersectionality, this fact has remained the same even as we see more women in higher positions. A study from the American Sociological Review found that women of color are also more likely to be made redundant or laid off. These layoffs are most common at the manager level and are related to the lack of career progression opportunities for this group. In other words, because they are not progressing past middle management, they are less likely to find themselves in higher, more secure positions, making them more vulnerable to layoffs.
Women are more likely to face microaggressions in the workplace
Microaggressions are defined as both intentional and unintentional words or behaviors that are hostile or derogatory. The danger is that they are often a manifestation of internalized bias, allowing them to be justified as unintentional or fly under the radar completely. The McKinsey study found that women are “twice as likely to be mistaken for someone junior and hear comments on their emotional state.” These microaggressions are significantly more common for Asian and Black women.
The consequences of this are detrimental, harming psychological safety. In turn, these women are less likely to present their ideas and raise concerns at work out of fear of rejection or not being taken seriously. Women, therefore, “self-shield” at work to protect themselves. One example is “code-switching” which is the attempt to blend in by toning down actions and opinions. They essentially want to fly under the radar. But of course, this is less fulfilling and will hinder career progress.
Hybrid work has positively impacted women’s success in the workplace
With all of this being said, there is a silver lining: hybrid and remote work models. The research has shown that despite the continued struggle women face in the workplace, flexible work is providing them with greater work-life balance and psychological safety. Although many of us have had to adjust to working from home, women have continued to remain ambitious during the pandemic. These ambitions are high for women of color, with 88% seeking promotion.
In the next section, we will dive deeper into how hybrid work has impacted women in the workplace.
How hybrid work has impacted women
Increased work-life balance
Due to the nature of hybrid work models, they provide women with greater work-life balance. For example, they can spend the time saved from commuting to work to exercise instead, or they can use work-from-home days to watch over their children. Having the flexibility to work from home when necessary allows women to fulfill their family responsibilities while still working at full capacity. This not only reduces stress but also feelings of guilt that working parents sometimes feel while attempting to balance work and family.
Many have reported that without the flexibility provided by hybrid work, they would have to reduce their hours at work. This is because women have a greater burden when it comes to childcare and often have to choose between caring for their children and the progression of their careers. Hybrid work helps mitigate this by allowing them to work regardless of their personal responsibilities. Additionally, most employees (83% according to McKinsey), both men and women, have reported being more efficient and productive while working remotely.
Improves psychological safety by reducing the number of microaggressions women face daily
As we explained previously, women, especially women of color, often experience microaggressions in the workplace. These hurtful words and actions hinder their performance and ability to speak out about their opinions and ideas. However, working from home allows them to reclaim a level of psychological safety because it shields them from these microaggressions on a daily basis. In turn, they are not only happier in their jobs, but they are also able to work to the best of their abilities.
Presenteeism and proximity bias
While there are many benefits of flexible models for women in the workplace, there is one key downside that is worth mentioning: proximity bias. This means that leaders prefer those who are physically closer to them (i.e., those working from the office rather than from home). Therefore, those working at home may be less likely to receive praise and may even be seen as slacking off since their work is done ‘out of sight.’ This affects women disproportionately as “men are seven to nine percentage points more likely to be “in the know,” receive the mentorship and sponsorships they need and have their accomplishments noticed and rewarded,” according to McKinsey research.
Steps for improving gender inclusivity in your workplace
Ensure that HR policies don’t discriminate
HR policies cover a whole host of topics regarding how women progress within your organization. From the hiring process to promotions, these guidelines set a precedent for how women will be treated in the professional environment. Additionally, HR is responsible for working against discriminatory behavior when it happens and responding firmly.
Considering the psychological impact that microaggressions have, it is important to respond to them head-on. This begins with pinpointing when they happen, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Then, take action against these behaviors by challenging the stereotype, promoting empathy, and teaching your employees to separate the intent of their words from the actual impact it has. More often than not, the intent is not malicious, but the impact is still hurtful. Therefore, teaching your employees that the impact matters as much or even more than the intent can help mitigate microaggressions in the future.
Introduce DEI training
In continuation of the point above, introducing DEI training is a great way to teach employees how to pinpoint microaggressions and respond effectively. Such training will also prevent discriminatory behavior from happening in the first place, creating a more positive work environment that positively impacts overall business performance. As we know, greater diversity means more innovation and idea creation. DEI practices can range from mentorship programs to employee resource groups and everything in between.
Track and encourage female career progression
The next step is to actually track how the implementation of DEI practices and HR policies are affecting career progression for women in your organization. Track specific key metrics such as how many women were promoted each year or how many women were interviewed for a certain role. By understanding your organization’s practices, you can understand the gaps in women’s advancement and make additional efforts to remove barriers and biases.
Embrace flexible work models
As explored in this article, flexible work greatly contributes to women’s opportunities in the workplace. While proximity bias needs to be combated, companies can still implement hybrid work models to give women the flexibility to balance their work and personal lives without jeopardizing either. It means women can continue to work while supporting their families and, therefore remain in the running for promotion.
As we've explored, progress is evident in the increased representation of women in C-suite roles, thanks to their determination and resilience in overcoming the glass ceiling. However, the stagnation of career progression at the middle of the corporate ladder remains a significant hurdle to gender equality. Women of color still face systemic underrepresentation and job insecurity, while microaggressions continue to undermine their psychological safety.
Nevertheless, hybrid work models present a silver lining, offering women greater work-life balance and improved psychological safety. To further improve gender inclusivity, organizations can take steps such as non-discriminatory HR policies, combating microaggressions, introducing DEI training, tracking and encouraging female career progression, and embracing flexible work models. By implementing these measures, workplaces can contribute to a more equitable and inclusive professional landscape where all women have the opportunity to thrive and advance.
Are you looking for a solution to efficiently operate your hybrid workplace while boosting employee experience and optimizing costs? Request a free demo of the deskbird app to discover how we support you in embracing the most sustainable way of working!
Annabel is a content specialist at deskbird, where she helps companies navigate the new hybrid world and build workplaces that people love.