Five years in, we see bright spots at senior levels. But companies need to focus their efforts earlier in the pipeline to make real progress.
In the last five years, we’ve seen more women rise to the top levels of companies. An increasing number of companies are seeing the value of having more women in leadership, and they’re proving that they can make progress on gender diversity. This is an important step in the right direction.
Still, women continue to be underrepresented at every level. To change the numbers, companies need to focus where the real problem is. We often talk about the “glass ceiling” that prevents women from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is much earlier in the pipeline, at the first step up to manager. Fixing this “broken rung” is the key to achieving parity.
The culture of work is equally important. All employees should feel respected and that they have an equal opportunity to grow and advance. Employees care deeply about opportunity and fairness, not only for themselves but for everyone. They want the system to be fair.
Done right, efforts to hire and promote more diverse candidates and create a strong culture reinforce each other. A more diverse workforce will naturally lead to a more inclusive culture. And when a company’s culture feels fair and inclusive, women and underrepresented groups are happier and more likely to thrive.
By fostering diversity, building a culture of opportunity and fairness, and focusing their attention on the broken rung, companies can close their gender gaps—and make progress on the road to equality. Download the pdf version.
Table of Contents
- All case studies
MetLifeSupporting women at the critical step up to management
ABInBevHow AB InBev changed their culture
JPMorgan ChaseSupport women advancement
SunTrustCandid conversations are important
NextRollAccountability pays off
NordstromCommitted leaders drive big gains
SodexoManager scorecards change the game
Understanding the corporate pipeline
Progress at the top
Based on five years of data from 590 companies employing more than 22 million people, two things are clear:
- Despite progress at senior levels, women remain significantly underrepresented.
- A “broken rung” at the step up to manager is the biggest obstacle that women face on the path to leadership.
What you need to know
- Women remain underrepresented at every level, despite making up the majority of college graduates since the 1990s.1
- Since 2015, the representation of women in the C-suite has increased from 17% to 21%.
- About 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman. Only 1 in 25 is a woman of color.
- Women aren’t leaving their companies at higher rates than men. They’re also asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates.
- Parity remains out of reach without fundamental changes early in the pipeline. We’ll get to gender equality faster by focusing early in the pipeline—not the top.
Despite progress at senior levels, gender parity remains out of reach
Over the past five years, we have seen signs of progress in the representation of women in corporate America. Since 2015, the number of women in senior leadership has grown. This is particularly true in the C-suite, where the representation of women has increased from 17% to 21%.
Although this is a step in the right direction, parity remains out of reach. Women—and particularly women of color—are underrepresented at every level. And without fundamental changes early in the pipeline, gains in women’s representation will ultimately stall.
Women are staying in the workforce and doing their part
Again this year, women are not leaving their companies at higher rates than men. Moreover, the vast majority of women and men who plan to leave their company intend to stay in the workforce—and less than 2% of employees are planning to leave to focus on family. Women are also asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men, and this has been true since 2015.
Companies are adding more women to the C-suite
Today, 44% of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29% of companies in 2015. Adding even one woman can make a material difference, given the critical role top executives play in shaping the business and culture of their company. Still, the overall representation of women in the C-suite is far from parity. About 1 in 5 C-suite executives is a woman—and only 1 in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color.
The Glass Ceiling and the “Broken Rung”
The “glass ceiling”—a term introduced more than 40 years ago—refers to an invisible, systemic barrier that prevents women from rising to senior leadership. But contrary to popular belief, the glass ceiling is not the biggest obstacle to women’s progression. It is actually at the first step up to manager— or the “broken rung.”
What you need to know
- The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager, or “broken rung”
- For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. And it’s worse for women of color.
- While entry level is close to parity, men end up holding 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%.
- If we fix the broken rung, we will add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years. If we don’t, we may never reach gender equality in leadership.
There are signs the glass ceiling is cracking…
More women are becoming senior leaders. This is driven by two trends. First, more women are being hired at the director level and above than in past years. Second, senior-level women are being promoted on average at a higher rate than men. Additionally, men at the SVP and C-suite levels are slightly more likely to leave their companies, creating more open positions for women to fill.
...But a broken rung prevents women from reaching the top
Progress at the top is constrained by a broken rung. The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%.
62% vs 38%
Men end up holding 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%.
16% Only 16% of Americans think companies are doing enough to close the gender pay gap.10
This early inequality has a long-term impact on the talent pipeline. Since men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, there are significantly fewer women to hire or promote to senior managers. The number of women decreases at every subsequent level. So even as hiring and promotion rates improve for women at senior levels, women as a whole can never catch up. There are simply too few women to advance.
Black women and Latinas are more likely to be held back by the broken rung. For every 100 entry-level men who are promoted to manager, just 68 Latinas and 58 Black women are promoted. Likewise, for every 100 men hired to manager, 57 Latinas and 64 Black women are hired.
Black women and Latinas are more likely to be held back by the broken rung
The broken rung is an unseen problem
Despite the profound impact of the broken rung on the trajectory of women, both HR leaders and employees underestimate the scope of the problem and its effect on the representation of women at senior levels in their organization. More than half of HR leaders and employees think their company will reach gender parity in leadership over the next 10 years. In reality, we are many decades away from reaching gender parity at the highest ranks—and may never reach it at all.
In addition, most people don’t fully understand the problem. When asked what the biggest challenges are to getting to equal numbers of women and men in leadership, awareness of the promotion gap at the first step up to manager is low. HR leaders more often point to less access to sponsorship or a lack of qualified women in the pipeline. On the bright side, almost everyone says that women are doing their part: very few HR leaders and employees think women are less willing to do what it takes or are less likely to aspire to positions in management.
Employees are overly optimistic about the state of women:
When 1 in 3 managers in their company is a woman...
62% of men and 54% of women think women are well represented at first-level management.
When 1 in 10 senior leaders in their company is a woman...
44% of men and 22% of women think women are well represented in senior leadership.
People don’t realize the step up to manager—the broken rung—is the biggest challenge to getting equal numbers of women and men into management
When asked what the biggest challenges are to getting to equal numbers of women and men in leadership, awareness of the promotion gap at the first step up to manager is low. HR leaders more often point to less access to sponsorship or a lack of qualified women in the pipeline. On the bright side, almost everyone says that women are doing their part: very few HR leaders and employees think women are less willing to do what it takes or are less likely to aspire to positions in management.
Five steps to fix the broken rung
The case for fixing the broken rung is powerful. If women are promoted and hired to first-level manager at the same rates as men, we will add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years.
To get to gender parity, companies must fix the broken rung
For many companies, diversity efforts in hiring and promotions are focused at senior levels, and we’re encouraged by the gains that we’re seeing in senior leadership. Now companies need to apply the same rigor to addressing the broken rung. Fixing it will set off a positive chain reaction across the entire pipeline. As more women become managers, there will be more women to promote and hire at each subsequent level. Put another way, more entry-level women will rise to management, and more women in management will rise to senior leadership.
If women are promoted and hired to first-level manager at the same rates as men, we will add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years.
Five steps companies can take to fix their broken rung—and ultimately their pipeline
1. Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management
About a third of companies set targets for the representation of women at first-level manager, compared to 41% for senior levels of management. Companies should use targets more aggressively. Given how important it is to fix the broken rung, companies would be well served by setting and publicizing a bold goal to grow the number of women at the manager level. Moreover, companies should put targets in place for hiring and promotions, the processes that most directly shape employee representation.
2. Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions
Companies are more likely to require diverse candidate slates for promotions at senior levels than at the manager level. But outside research shows that diverse slates can be a powerful driver of change at every level. When two or more women are included on a slate, the likelihood that a woman will get the position rises dramatically.
3. Put evaluators through unconscious bias training
Unconscious bias can play a large role in determining who is hired, promoted, or left behind. Companies are less likely to provide unconscious bias training for employees who participate in entrylevel performance reviews than senior-level reviews, but mitigating bias at this stage is particularly important. Candidates tend to have shorter track records early in their careers, and evaluators may make unfair, gendered assumptions about their future potential.
There is also compelling evidence that this training works: In companies with smaller gender disparities in representation, half of employees received unconscious bias training in the past year, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren’t making progress closing these gaps.
4. Establish clear evaluation criteria
Companies need to make sure they have the right processes in place to prevent bias from creeping into hiring and reviews. This means establishing clear evaluation criteria before the review process begins. Evaluation tools should also be easy to use and designed to gather objective, measurable input. For example, a rating scale is generally more effective than an open-ended assessment.
Even with the right systems in place, processes can break down in practice. Employees are less likely than HR leaders to say that evaluation criteria are defined before candidate reviews begin, and they report that participating employees do not typically flag bias when they see it. This points to the need for companies to put additional safeguards in place to encourage fair, unbiased evaluations. Without exception, candidates for the same role should be evaluated using the same criteria. Employees should feel empowered to surface bias in the moment and have the training and resources to act when they observe it. In addition, outside research shows that it can help to have a third party in the room when evaluators discuss candidates to highlight potential bias and encourage objectivity.
5. Put more women in line for the step-up to management
It is critical that women get the experience they need to be ready for management roles, as well as opportunities to raise their profile so they get tapped for them. The building blocks to make this happen are not new—leadership training, sponsorship, high-profile assignments—but many companies need to provide them with a renewed sense of urgency.
Only 6 of 323 companies do all of these best practices
MetLife realized that in order to see more women in leadership they needed to fuel their own pipeline. This meant developing talented women from the entry level up and promoting more of them to management roles.
What they did
MetLife launched a 14-month career development program for high-potential women called Developing Women’s Career Experience. The program not only trains women in key leadership skills like business acumen and strategy, but also increases the sense of urgency to promote women. This effort has paid off, with many participants taking on expanded roles and responsibilities within six months of completing the program. In addition, through its Women’s Business Networks, MetLife runs Lean In Circles—a program that brings small groups of employees together for monthly peer support and mentorship.
MetLife has also focused on increasing diversity in hiring and promotions. The company uses diverse candidate slates and makes sure that managers consider diversity when they make succession plans. MetLife also uses external recruiters to identify diverse talent, ensures that job requirements are gender-neutral, and trains recruiters on issues in the selection process that could impede diverse hiring. To foster diverse talent in the company’s own ranks, MetLife has trained leaders to be mindful of potential bias in the review and career development process.
Since 2015, MetLife has strengthened the representation of women in its workforce. More than half of its managers and entry-level workers are now women.
The Culture of Work
Fostering a diverse and inclusive culture
The importance of equal opportunity and fairness
Diversity efforts are the key to fairness for everyone. Companies may benefit from reframing the importance of diversity and inclusion. Diversity efforts are often viewed as only benefiting women and underrepresented groups. In reality, they are about ensuring that employees of all genders, races, and backgrounds have access to the same opportunities. These efforts start with understanding what’s really getting in the way of fairness and addressing the barriers disadvantaged groups face head-on— this is in fact the path to fairness.
What you need to know
- When employees feel they have equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work.
- Manager support, sponsorship, and impartial hiring and promotion practices are key elements in creating a workplace that delivers opportunity and fairness to everyone.
- Gender is one of many aspects of women’s identity that shapes their experiences. Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women.
Together, opportunity and fairness are the biggest predictors of employee satisfaction
Employees universally value opportunity and fairness. Across demographic groups, when employees feel they have equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work.
In fact, we looked at a number of factors that outside research has shown influence employee satisfaction and retention—including leadership accountability and manager support—and together opportunity and fairness stand out as the strongest predictors by far.
Many employees think they have equal opportunity to advance—but they are less convinced all employees do
A majority of employees believe they personally have equal opportunity to grow and advance, but they are less convinced the system is fair for everyone. Fewer than half of women and men think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees, and fewer than a quarter say that only the most qualified candidates are promoted to manager. On both fronts, women are less optimistic than men.
Women are less optimistic about their opportunity to advance: 1 in 4 women thinks that their gender has played a role in missing out on a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.
A few key practices shape how employees view opportunity and fairness
1. Manager support
Managers have a big impact on how employees view their day-today opportunities. Employees are more likely to think they have equal opportunities for growth and advancement when their manager showcases their work, helps them manage their career, and advocates for new opportunities for them on a regular basis.
Most managers provide this type of career support, and women and men report receiving similar amounts of help from their manager. However, managers don’t do these things with enough consistency: About a third of employees say managers advocate for new opportunities for them a great deal, and less than a quarter of employees say managers regularly help them manage their career.
Companies can help by making sure managers have the tools and training they need to more fully support their team members—and by rewarding them when they do.
Sponsorship can open doors, and more employees need it. Fewer than half of employees at the manager level or higher serve as sponsors, and only 1 in 3 employees says they have a sponsor—and this is equally true for women and men. Moreover, less than a third of employees say they get the sponsorship needed to advance their career. Fortunately, sponsorship is trending in the right direction—just a year ago, a quarter of employees reported having a sponsor.
Companies would be wise to double down on sponsorship. Other research shows that it accelerates career advancement, and employees with sponsors are far more likely to say they have opportunities to grow and advance.
3. Inclusive and unbiased hiring and promotions
When companies have strong hiring and performance review processes in place, employees are more likely to think the system is fair and the most deserving employees are able to rise to the top. Over the past five years, more companies have adopted best practices, but progress toward full adoption is slow. This year, only 6 of 32313 companies report they do all of the following: set diversity targets, require diverse slates for hiring and promotions, establish clear and consistent evaluation criteria before review processes begin, and require unconscious bias training for employees involved in hiring and performance reviews.
In combination, these are the building blocks needed to foster diversity and minimize bias in decision-making. Given that hiring and promotions are powerful levers in driving pipeline diversity and employee satisfaction, there’s a strong business case for adopting more of these best practices.
Some groups of women receive less support and see less opportunity to advance
There is no one story of women in the workplace. Gender is one of many aspects of women’s identity that shapes their experiences. Women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, and women with disabilities are having distinct—and by and large worse—experiences than women overall17. Most notably, Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women.
Not surprisingly, Black women and women with disabilities are far less likely to feel they have an equal opportunity to grow and advance, and are far less likely to think the best opportunities go to the most deserving employees. They are also less happy at work and more likely to leave their company than other women are.
It’s important for companies to understand that all women are not having the same experience and to directly address the unique challenges that different groups of women face.
In 2015, AB InBev, which owns Anheuser-Busch, participated in the first Women in the Workplace report. As a result, they realized that employing more women was a business opportunity: They could both diversify their talent and reach more women consumers.
What they did
AB InBev’s leaders designed a comprehensive strategy and took many actions to drive change, but these are the three steps that they believe moved the needle most:
1. Got employees to buy into diversity:
It’s crucial to make the business case for diversity—and make it stick. AB InBev’s leadership shared research showing that more diverse teams make better business decisions and helped employees see that diversity would help the company reach more consumers.
2. Built managers’ skills:
AB InBev used the recommendations in the 2017 Women in the Workplace report as a playbook to create a toolkit for D&I leaders in regions around the world. A key focus of the toolkit was to develop managers’ skills in D&I. It included training to help them reduce bias in hiring and promotions and foster inclusive teams. All managers receive feedback on how they are championing D&I as part of their annual 360 review. They also get feedback from their team members, who are surveyed on the manager’s D&I performance.
3. Created a supportive culture:
AB InBev has created a network of trained D&I allies so employees feel safe raising issues. The company has also created a Global Parental Standard that increased parental leave to be competitive in local markets. For instance, in Mexico, when primary caregivers return after four months of leave, they work four hours per day—the number of months old their babies are—and add an hour per day each month until they’re working full-time.
In the past three years, AB InBev has made major changes that set the stage for increasing its representation of women. They have already achieved an important milestone in equalizing promotion rates at the first step up to manager.
The importance of Work-life flexibility
Opportunity and fairness matter deeply to employees. So does fitting work into life. All employees benefit from the flexibility to shape their work schedule and time off for big life moments, like recovering from surgery or caring for a newborn. When workplace policies support balancing work and life, employees are happier at work.
What you need to know
- Work-life flexibility was the number one issue raised by employees in 2019
- More than 1 in 4 employees who took leave say it hurt their career or finances—and this is particularly true for women.
- 81% of women have a partner who works full-time, compared to 56% of men.
- The average paid leave available to new fathers has increased from four to seven weeks over the last 3 years. The average paid leave available for mothers has stayed stagnant at 10 weeks.
Employees want more flexibility, and companies are delivering
Balancing work and life is a juggling act for most employees, and flexibility is key to making it possible. Companies have responded to this need over the past five years. Almost all companies offer employees time off for family or personal reasons, and a vast majority of companies give employees some freedom to set their own schedules or work from home. Employees recognize the benefits of these policies, but they still think companies can go further: Work-life flexibility was the number one issue raised by employees in 2019, followed by the need for more mentorship and sponsorship.
In 2019, more than 70% of employees said their companies offered some flexibility to work from home, compared to about 40% of employees in 2015
Many employees take leave, but some worry about negative consequences
Over the last five years, a majority of employees have become new parents or dealt with a significant personal or family health issue. About half of these employees took leave. Many who did not take leave were able to handle the situation without a break in work, but others point to concerns about work responsibilities, fear that it might negatively impact their career trajectory, or financial concerns. Moreover, more than 1 in 4 employees who took leave say it hurt their career or finances—and this is particularly true for women.
20% of women who’ve taken a leave say it negatively impacted their career, compared to 10% of men. Women are also twice as likely to say it had a negative effect on their financial well being
Most women who work also have partners who work, which can make balancing work and life tricky
Eighty-one percent of women have a partner who works full-time, compared to 56% of men. And as employees become more senior, this disparity between women and men grows: 72% of senior-level women have a partner who works, compared to only 37% of men at the same level. In other words, men who rise in the workplace are significantly more likely to have a stay-at-home partner than women at the same level. When it comes to household responsibilities, there is also a big gender disparity: 39% of women in dual-career relationships report doing most or all of the housework, compared to just 11% of men in dual-career relationships.
Today, 56% of men have a partner who works fulltime, compared to 47% in 2015. And 81% of women have a partner who works full-time, compared to 75% in 2015
Paternity leave has increased, but maternity leave is stagnant
Significantly more U.S. companies offer paid paternity leave compared to three years ago, and the average paid leave available to new fathers has increased from four to seven weeks. Similarly, the number of companies offering extended paternity leave has increased by 59%. New fathers appear to be taking advantage of these expanded policies: In 2019, men were roughly as likely as women to take leave when they became new parents.
Taken as a whole, however, there is still significant room for improvement. About 40% of companies do not offer extended parental leave, and there is very little progress being made on maternity leave. Most notably, the average length of paid maternity leave has remained stuck at 10 weeks—compared to the 20 weeks women, on average, receive in Europe. Since parental leave is critically important to many employees, companies would be well served to provide it more generously.
The CEO and operating committee at JPMorgan Chase (JPMC) wanted to increase women’s representation at senior levels more quickly in order to have diverse perspectives at the top. In 2013, several women on the operating committee launched the Women on the Move program to connect women executives across JPMC locations around the world.
This effort was accompanied by other new initiatives, including increased paid parental leave and a ReEntry Program for employees returning to the industry. JPMC also launched a “30-5-1” campaign to foster employees to support women colleagues. The program encourages employees to set aside 30 minutes a week to have coffee with a talented woman colleague, five minutes a week to recognize a woman colleague’s success, and one minute a week to share that success with others at the firm. JPMC’s leaders believe that these programs, along with the firm’s other diversity and inclusion initiatives, have helped them develop and retain more talented women. JPMC has increased its representation of women in the C-suite at more than double the industry average.
The importance of safe and respectful workplaces
The foundation of a good culture is a safe and respectful workplace. To put this in practice, companies need to make it clear that disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated and hold everyone accountable. They also need to equip employees to call out bias and everyday discrimination when they see it so they become part of the solution.
What you need to know
- 73% of women experience microaggressions, or everyday discrimination rooted in bias.
- Some women experience more microaggressions, especially lesbian and bisexual women, women with disabilities, and Black women.
- Only a third of employees say managers challenge bias often.
- Senior leaders are more likely to challenge gender-biased behavior than other levels.
- Two in five women have experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of their career.
- About 1 in 5 women says they are often the only or one of the only people of their gender in the room. And they’re more likely to experience microaggressions.
A safe and respectful culture requires accountability
Companies need to hold leaders and employees accountable for good behavior and have systems in place to surface and address bad behavior. This is worth getting right: When employees think their company is serious about accountability, they are happier and more likely to stay at their company. Yet only 32 percent of women and 50 percent of men believe disrespectful behavior toward women is often quickly addressed by their company.
Companies should empower employees to speak up
In the past year, 33% of women and 11% of men say they have seen or heard biased behavior toward women. Yet 73% of women experience microaggressions, or everyday slights rooted in bias. This points to a disconnect: Many employees aren’t recognizing biased behavior, and even when they do see it, they don’t speak up. Only about a third of employees who’ve seen bias over the past year spoke up personally to challenge it—and a quarter say someone else did. Employees may be apprehensive about speaking up because it feels like a high-risk endeavor: 37% say it could hurt their career. Or they might not think it will make a difference: Half of employees who’ve spoken up say nothing happened as a result.
Unconscious bias training can help employees learn to recognize bias and should be reinforced on a regular basis. This training needs to be coupled with a culture that encourages people to speak up and engage in difficult conversations.
Managers need to challenge bias
Managers play a central role in shaping employees’ day-to-day work experiences. When managers regularly challenge gender-biased language or behavior, employees are several times more likely to say their company values people’s differences and quickly addresses disrespectful behavior toward women. But only a third of employees say managers do this often—and women are significantly less likely than men to think this is true.
It’s important for senior leaders to model the right behavior
Compared to employees at other levels, senior leaders are more likely to challenge biased behavior when they see it. About a quarter of entry-level employees say they do this, compared to 53% of senior-level men and 46% of senior-level women.
But senior-level men, in particular, say that they don’t observe a lot of gender bias. Only 12% say they’ve seen biased behavior toward women in the last year. On the other hand, 43% of senior-level women say they have. The challenge is educating senior-level men so they can better spot bias. When senior leaders speak up more often, employees may feel empowered to speak up, too.
Microaggressions can have a macro impact
Microaggressions are a common occurrence in the workplace. From having their judgment challenged to being overlooked or being mistaken for someone at a more junior level, women are far more likely to experience this everyday discrimination. While 73% of women and 59% of men have experienced at least one type of microaggression, these everyday slights are more common for women. They are almost twice as likely as men to experience four or more types of microaggressions.
Some groups of women face more types of microaggressions. Compared to other races and ethnicities, Black women are the most likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to prove their competence. Lesbian women, bisexual women, and women with disabilities are far more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks about themselves or others like them and to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives at work.
Although they can seem small in the moment, these negative experiences add up. Over time microaggressions can have a major impact, and it’s important to challenge them when you see them. Women who experience microaggressions are three times more likely to regularly think about leaving their job than women who have not experienced this form of discrimination.
Microaggressions are forms of everyday discrimination that are often rooted in bias. Whether intentional or unintentional, they signal disrespect and are more often directed at those with less power
Sexual harassment is far too common...
Sexual harassment continues to be a widespread issue at work. Two in five women surveyed have experienced some form of sexual harassment over the course of their career, such as hearing sexist jokes, being touched in an inappropriately sexual way, and receiving unwanted attempts to have an intimate relationship.
For some women, sexual harassment is more common. Lesbian women, bisexual women, women in technical roles, and women in leadership roles are more likely to be sexually harassed. Social science research shows that women who defy conventional expectations of how women should act—for example, because of their sexual orientation or field of work—are targeted more often. Women with disabilities also experience higher rates of sexual harassment, and outside research shows this may be because of their more vulnerable status at work.
...And it is critical that companies communicate that it won’t be tolerated
Companies need to communicate that all forms of sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Many are doing this effectively. 91% of companies say they’ve communicated their sexual harassment policy to employees in the past year. 80% of employees report that senior leaders at their company have clearly communicated that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. And for the most part, the message is reaching employees: 66% of employees say they could describe their company’s policy to a new employee.
Some companies would also benefit from making the claim process more transparent and putting an audit process in place to ensure that investigations are intensive and outcomes are appropriate. While 59% of employees think a claim of sexual harassment would be fairly investigated and addressed, about 20% are uncertain or think it would be risky or pointless to file a claim. Women, in particular, are less likely to trust the reporting process than men—and women who have experienced any form of sexual harassment are particularly pessimistic.
Some employees also fear a backlash for raising the issue: 38% of women and 24% of men who have been sexually harassed and kept it to themselves say they were worried that reporting could have negative consequences on their career. In addition, companies are wrestling with how to create transparency: Half of employees say that they don’t know if top performers are held accountable for violating their company’s sexual harassment policy.
“Only” women are having a worse experience than other women
Given that women are underrepresented across the corporate pipeline, many end up being the only or one of the only women in the room at work. About 1 in 5 women says they are often an “Only,” and this experience is about twice as likely for senior-level women and women in technical roles. By comparison, only 5% of men are often the only or one of the only men in the room, and regardless of their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, they face less scrutiny than women Onlys.
Women who are Onlys are having a notably difficult experience at work. They’re far more likely to experience microaggressions than women who work with other women. They are more than twice as likely to be asked to prove their competence, over three times more likely to be mistaken for someone more junior, and about twice as likely to be subjected to demeaning or disrespectful remarks. Moreover, they are twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their career.
Women Onlys stand out in the spaces they occupy, and this added visibility can make the biases they face more pronounced. As a result, women Onlys tend to be heavily scrutinized and held to particularly high standards. In addition, they are often seen as the standard-bearer for all women. 37% of women Onlys report feeling under pressure to perform and 35% feel on guard or closely watched. Black women, who are often the only woman and the only person of their race in the room, can feel especially on guard and closely watched—50% report feeling this way as an Only.
Strategies to counteract the Only experience
Companies can’t change the representation of women overnight, but there are strategies they can use to counteract the Only experience. Companies can hire and promote women in cohorts so that there are multiple women at similar levels. In addition, companies should pay close attention to teams or functions where there are Onlys and be deliberate about staffing: rather than staffing one woman on a team, they might put groups of two or three women on teams together. As well as making the Only experience less common, companies can make the experience better by helping women build connections with each other through mentorship programs or by staffing them on cross-functional projects.
The Only experience isn’t limited to gender
Being an Only is common for people of color and gay people. Thirty-eight% of people of color are often the only or one of the only people of their race and ethnicity in the room. Likewise, 68% of gay men and 70% of lesbian women are often Onlys for their sexual orientation.
For people who are Onlys because of their race, the stakes can feel especially high. They are more likely to feel like everyone is watching their every move or as if their actions reflect positively or negatively on other people of the same race. Similar to other Onlys, gay people who are Onlys tend to feel under pressure to perform, closely watched, and left out.
SunTrust executives have focused for several years on promoting a more open, inclusive dialog at the company. In 2018, the company participated in the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion’s “Day of Understanding.” The event helped employees to embrace differences, build awareness of unconscious bias, and nurture inclusivity inside and outside the bank. In included workshops to foster candid conversations around race, gender, disability, LGBTQ identity, religion, and military service.
In response to high demand from employees, SunTrust has since held more than thirty similar workshops across the U.S. In addition, thousands of employees participate in one of the company’s eight Teammate Networks (TMNs), which build awareness and appreciation for different cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives, each led by an executive council member. These efforts seem to be making a difference: 80 percent of employees report the company’s environment is inclusive, up eleven percentage points in three years.
Commitment to Diversity
Turning commitment into action
Commitment to gender diversity
Companies are far more committed to gender diversity than ever before. Now they need to double down on their efforts to turn that commitment into action.
What you need to know
- In 2019, 87% of companies are highly committed to gender diversity, compared to 56% in 2012.
- But only 52% think gender diversity is a high priority to their company.
- 73% of senior leaders are highly committed to gender diversity, and close to half say they’re working to improve gender diversity.
- 77% of companies, 59% of managers, and 56% of employees say racial diversity is a high priority.
Commitment to gender diversity has increased significantly
Today, 87% of companies are highly committed to gender diversity, compared to 56% in 2012, when McKinsey & Company first conducted a similar study on the state of women at work. Since 2015, manager commitment to gender diversity has also increased, and employee commitment—especially among men—has risen significantly.
It is encouraging that so many companies prioritize gender diversity. However, it’s worth noting that employees are less convinced: only half of employees think gender diversity is a high priority to their company, and that number hasn’t changed over the last five years.
What employees think matters. When employees say their company is highly committed to gender diversity, they are happier and plan to stay at their company longer. This is equally true for women and men.
Companies, managers, and employees are similarly committed to racial diversity as they are to gender diversity: 77% of companies, 59% of managers, and 56% of employees say it is a high priority
Turning commitment into action
Many companies need to do more to put their commitment into practice and treat gender diversity like the business priority it is. This starts with taking concrete actions like setting diversity targets and sharing diversity metrics— not just at senior levels, but with all employees. It also means holding leaders accountable and rewarding them when they make progress. In most organizations, what gets measured and rewarded is what gets done.
Over time, more companies are putting the right mechanisms in place, and employees are noticing this progress. Compared to last year, employees are twice as likely to say their companies have gender diversity targets in place for hiring. However, there is more to be done. When companies have the right foundation for change—clear goals, obvious accountability, a reward system—they are in a better position to drive systemic change. Gender diversity efforts shift from a nice-to-have to a must-have, and that leads to broad-based action across the organization.
Engaging senior leaders is driving change
More than half of companies hold senior leaders accountable for progress on gender diversity metrics, up from a little over a third in 2015. And it’s making a difference. Seventy-three percent of senior leaders are highly committed to gender diversity, and close to half say they’re working to improve gender diversity. Senior leaders set the priorities in organizations, so when they’re engaged, it has a positive trickle-down effect: Managers are more likely to support diversity efforts, and employees are more likely to think the workplace is fair.
As a next step, companies should push deeper into their organization and engage managers to play a more active role. Compared to senior leaders, fewer managers say gender diversity is a high priority, and far fewer managers say they are actively working to improve diversity and inclusion.
What they did
Each year, NextRoll shares its results from Women in the Workplace and internal employee surveys at a company-wide meeting, as well as concrete diversity targets for the year ahead. Then, at subsequent all-hands meetings, the company updates employees on progress and encourages them to ask questions and share input. Members of the executive team also have a diversity and/or inclusion goal every quarter, and the goals are publicly displayed at the company. Because leaders are open about their goals—and talk about D&I as if it’s every employee’s responsibility— employees are more invested in reaching those goals.
This strategy is paying off: from 2016 to 2019, women’s representation rose from 27 percent to 40 percent in senior management roles.
What they did
In 2016, Nordstrom set a bold goal of increasing representation in their leadership to better reflect their consumer base, which is 70 percent women. At the time, a majority of their employees were women, but their leadership was mostly men. To kick-start the initiative and get senior buy-in, Nordstrom’s leadership took part in a “conscious inclusion” program to better understand how bias plays out in the workplace. They then identified four key “pillars” that drive diversity and inclusion: talent, culture, marketplace, and leadership. Each pillar was sponsored by a small team of executives who established programs to drive progress—from diverse hiring slates to unconscious bias trainings—and managed them like a critical part of the business.
From 2016 to 2019, Nordstrom has seen remarkable gains: their efforts increased the share of women in the C-suite from 7 percent to 40 percent, in SVP roles from 49 percent to 63 percent, and on the board from 17 percent to 46 percent.
Sodexo’s internal data showed that the share of women dropped sharply after entry level—which reduced the number of women in the leadership pipeline.
What they did
In response, senior leaders implemented a two-step plan as part of their comprehensive D&I strategy. They launched a “mentoring circles” program—in which a small group of women from entry-level to mid-level managers meet monthly—to identify high-potential women in operational roles and help them advance through the ranks. These women then took part in a year-long one-on-one mentorship program.
Sodexo also created a scorecard to hold managers accountable for their efforts on diversity and inclusion. Sodexo leaders believe this has transformed the culture of the company.
If you’re a manager or senior leader at Sodexo, 10 percent of your bonus is tied to your scorecard. You can score up to 600 points for hiring, promoting, and retaining more women and underrepresented groups. But the scorecard doesn’t just measure numeric progress. You can score an extra 400 points if you take other steps that improve Sodexo’s culture by demonstrating inclusive leadership. For instance, you might set up a bias and inclusion training for your team, mentor or sponsor women or people of color, or sponsor SoTogether, their internal women’s employee resource group.
Sodexo monitors outcomes closely and refines the scorecards over time. For instance, the initial scorecard awarded points for meeting quantitative representation targets only, but feedback suggested that Sodexo would see more widespread buy-in and less resistance if managers were also rewarded for changing their behavior, changing their processes, and being more inclusive. So Sodexo added points for inclusive actions to the scorecard, and coaches were assigned to work with managers on their action plans to improve outcomes. Leadership believes this expanded focus has helped the company meet its numeric goals faster, as well as made the culture more inclusive.
Over the past five years, women’s representation has increased by 10 percent on average at entry and manager levels, more than 20 percent at the SVP level, and has doubled in the C-suite.