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Key findings from the Women in the Workplace 2018 report

Women are leaning in. Now companies need to lean in, too.

Companies continue to report they are highly committed to gender diversity; yet women continue to be vastly underrepresented at every level. For women of color, it’s even worse. Only about one in five senior leaders is a woman, and one in twenty-five is a woman of color.

Women are doing their part. They’ve been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men for decades. They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.

Progress isn’t just slow—it’s stalled.

Those are some of the findings from Women in the Workplace 2018, our fourth annual study on the state of women in corporate America. Conducted by LeanIn.Org, in partnership with McKinsey & Company, it is the largest comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America. This year, 279 companies employing more than 13 million people shared their pipeline data and completed a survey of their HR practices. In addition, more than 64,000 employees were surveyed on their workplace experiences, and we interviewed women of different races and ethnicities and LGBTQ women for additional insights.

Women remain significantly underrepresented

Since 2015, the first year of this study, corporate America has made almost no progress in improving women’s representation. From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level. And at every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines. Women of color are the most underrepresented group of all—behind white men, men of color, and white women.

And for the fourth year in a row, attrition does not explain the problem. Women and men are leaving their companies at similar rates, and they have similar intentions to remain in the workforce.

Women are left behind from the get-go

The two biggest drivers of representation are hiring and promotions, and companies are disadvantaging women in these areas from the beginning. Although women earn more bachelor’s degrees than men, and have for decades, they are less likely to be hired into entry-level jobs.

Read the full report and learn how companies can take action

At the first critical step up to manager, the disparity widens further. Women are less likely to be hired into manager-level jobs, and they are far less likely to be promoted into them—for every one hundred men promoted to manager, seventy-nine women are. Largely because of these gender gaps, men end up holding 62% of manager positions, while women hold only 38%.

If companies continue to hire and promote women to manager at current rates, the number of women in management will increase by just one percentage point over the next ten years. But if companies start hiring and promoting women and men to manager at equal rates, we should get close to parity in management—48% women versus 52% men—over the same ten years.

Women still experience an uneven playing field

Based on this year’s survey of more than 64,000 employees, it is clear that women still experience an uneven playing field. They get less day-to-day support and less access to senior leaders. They are more likely to deal with harassment and everyday discrimination. They often feel the added scrutiny that comes from being the only woman in the room. And understandably, they think it’s harder for them to advance.

Women of color and lesbian women face even more biases and barriers to advancement—as do all women who deal with compounding biases because of their identity, background, or beliefs.

Everyday discrimination is a workplace reality

Everyday sexism and racism—also known as microaggressions—can take many forms. Some can be subtle, like when a person mistakenly assumes a coworker is more junior than they really are. Some are more explicit, like when a person says something demeaning to a coworker. Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions signal disrespect. They also reflect inequality—while anyone can be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior, microaggressions are more often directed at those with less power, such as women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.

I was in the elevator and pressed the button for the executive office. Someone said to me, ‘Um, no honey. That’s for the executive offices. The interns are going to this floor.’”

— Director, 4 years at company, Asian woman

For 64% of women, microaggressions are a workplace reality. Most commonly, women have to provide more evidence of their competence than men and they have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. They are also twice as likely as men to have been mistaken for someone in a more junior position. Black women, in particular, deal with a greater variety of microaggressions and are more likely than other women to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence.

I’ve had a couple of bosses who have made me feel that I shouldn’t talk about my wife. I’ve responded, ‘I’m just being me. You get to talk about your wife all the time, I’m going to talk about mine too. I shouldn’t be held to a different standard.’”

— SVP, 10 years at company, white lesbian woman

Lesbian women experience further slights: 71% have dealt with microaggressions. The nature of these encounters is often different for them: lesbian women are far more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks in the workplace about themselves or others like them. They are also far more likely to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives at work.

These negative experiences add up. As their name suggests, microaggressions can seem small when dealt with one by one. But when repeated over time, they can have a major impact: women who experience microaggressions view their workplaces as less fair and are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than women who don’t.

Companies need to create a safe and respectful work environment

Sexual harassment continues to pervade the workplace. Thirty-five percent of women in corporate America experience sexual harassment at some point in their careers, from hearing sexist jokes to being touched in an inappropriately sexual way.

For some women the experience is far more common. Fifty-five percent of women in senior leadership, 48% of lesbian women, and 45% of women in technical fields report they’ve been sexually harassed.

Both women and men point to the need for companies to do more to create a safe and respectful work environment. Only 27% of employees say that managers regularly challenge biased language and behavior when they observe it. Forty percent say that disrespectful behavior toward women is often quickly addressed by their company. And just 32% think that their company swiftly acts on claims of sexual harassment.

These numbers indicate the urgent need for companies to underscore that bad behavior is unacceptable and will not go overlooked. Leaders at all levels need to set the tone by publicly stating that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated and by modeling inclusive behavior.

Being “the only one” is still a common experience for women

One in five women says they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work—in other words, they are “Onlys.”1 This is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles: around 40% of them are Onlys.

I feel like I have to represent the entire race. I need to come across as more than proficient, more than competent, more than capable. I have to be ‘on’ all the time. Because in the back of someone’s mind, they could be judging the entire race based on me.”

— Mid-level administrator, 4 years at company, Black woman

Women who are Onlys are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. Over 80% are on the receiving end of microaggressions, compared to 64% of women as a whole. They are more likely to have their abilities challenged, to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks, and to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives at work. Most notably, women Onlys are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers.

Being an Only also impacts the way women view their workplace. Compared to other women, women Onlys are less likely to think that the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees, promotions are fair and objective, and ideas are judged by their quality rather than who raised them. Not surprisingly, given the negative experiences and feelings associated with being the odd woman out, women Onlys are also 1.5 times more likely to think about leaving their job.

Change starts with treating gender diversity like the business priority it is

Experts agree that articulating a business case, setting goals and reporting on progress, and rewarding success are key to driving organizational change. When it comes to gender diversity, more companies need to put these practices in place. Only 38% of companies set targets for gender representation, even though setting goals is the first step toward achieving any business priority. Only 12% share a majority of gender diversity metrics with their employees, even though transparency is a helpful way to signal a company’s commitment to change. Only 42% hold senior leaders accountable for making progress toward gender parity, and even fewer hold managers and directors accountable. Yet it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of change when leaders aren’t formally expected to drive it.

The benefits of diversity are proven: new ideas, better results, and happier employees. This report includes concrete, evidence-based steps that organizations can take right now that will make a difference. We hope companies seize this opportunity. We can’t achieve equality until they do.

Read the complete Women in the Workplace 2018 report, including detailed findings and recommendations for change, here.

This is an edited abstract from Women in the Workplace 2018, a study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey. It builds on the Women in the Workplace reports from 2015, 2016, and 2017, as well as similar research conducted by McKinsey in 2012.


  1. Historically, social scientists have used terms such as “numerical minorities” and “tokens” to describe similar dynamics. For the first study on this dynamic, see Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books, 1977).