Women are finally making gains at the highest and hardest-to-reach echelons of corporate America, but that progress could stall if companies focus too much on shattering glass ceilings, instead of supporting entry-level and mid-career women, according to the latest “Women in the Workplace” report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company.
Women's representation in the C-Suite has grown to 28%, the highest its been since this data first started being tracked nine years ago.Lean In and McKinsey & Company
Women’s representation in the C-suite has grown to 28%, the highest it’s ever been in the survey’s nine-year history, and representation of women at the SVP and VP levels has also improved significantly, to 27% and 33%, respectively.
It’s an enormous achievement for women, considering the challenges of the past few years, particularly a pandemic that threatened to derail a generation of progress in the workplace. Instead, women have regained all of the jobs lost during that time — and then some. The labor force participation rate for prime-age women (those between the ages of 25 and 54) is the highest it's ever been.
But these big gains may not last if companies don’t fix their pipeline problems. Progress has been slower for women at the manager and director levels, the report notes. Women in director-level positions — the group next in line for senior leadership — are leaving their jobs at a higher rate than in past years, and at a notably higher rate than men at the same level.
“That's incredibly important because most companies haven't built a pipeline of diverse talent to sustain the gains at the top since they don't have equal gains happening in the middle,” says Alexis Krivkovich, senior partner at McKinsey & Company and a co-founding author of the annual report.
The challenges for women begin at the first step on their corporate ascent, when more men than women are promoted to managerial positions, a phenomenon workplace equity experts call the broken rung. That troubling trend persists in this year’s report, with only 87 women promoted to manager for every 100 men who get the job.
The rung is particularly broken for Black women, who made huge leaps during 2021 and 2022, when, prompted by racial justice movements sweeping across the country, companies prioritized elevating employees of color.
Just 54 Black women were promoted to manager for every 100 men in 2022.Lean In and McKinsey & Company
In 2020 and 2021, for every 100 men promoted to manager, 82 and 96 Black women were promoted, respectively. But in 2022, that progress was lost, and only 54 Black women made the move to manager for every 100 men who did.
“There was a momentary bright spot for Black women during a critical moment in time when people were really putting a stake in the ground around D&I, and that has dropped back to the level we saw five years ago. And that's a problem,” says LeanIn.Org CEO Rachel Thomas.
One big reason for the disparity, Thomas says, is that bias is more likely to influence the decision-making process in promotions and performance reviews at the entry level, when track records and resumes are short.
Working women have long been portrayed as less ambitious than men, but this bias is completely debunked by this year’s survey. At nearly every stage of the pipeline, women remain just as ambitious as men, according to the report. Almost all of the women surveyed say their career is important to them, and 81% are interested in being promoted to the next level, just the same as men.
Crucially, this includes women who work in remote or hybrid settings. They are equally committed to their careers and just as ambitious as their colleagues who work on-site. It’s a finding that contradicts a growing narrative that the post-pandemic shift to virtual work has dampened workers’ drive.
Several high-profile CEOs, including Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, OpenAI’s Sam Altman, and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, have hinted that remote work imperils productivity. Elon Musk, one of the most outspoken critics of virtual work, has required his employees at Tesla and X to return to the office, suggesting that anyone working from home is “phoning it in.”
Evidence suggests just the opposite. It’s far more likely that flexible work is powering women’s ambitions, by giving them the bandwidth to balance responsibilities at work and home. Economists and other experts have theorized that remote work is a big reason why women have rejoined the labor market in droves.
And it’s not just women who value flexibility. Both men and women surveyed ranked “opportunities to work remotely” as the second most important employee benefit, right behind healthcare, and ahead of mental health benefits, parental leave, and childcare and caregiver benefits.
“Women are really defying the outdated notion that work and life are incompatible, which ultimately is going to change the culture of work for all of us, men included,” Thomas says.
The report recommends three important steps for employers who sincerely want to propel more women to the top:
1. Set representation aspirations at all levels and track outcomes. Companies should set diversity goals for every part of the pipeline, and then measure whether they’re reaching them. They should track hiring, promotions, and other metrics that influence career progression, and fix any trouble spots the data reveals.
2. Support and reward managers for driving organizational change. Include responsibilities like career development, DEI, and employee well-being in managers’ job descriptions and performance reviews, and make sure they’re equipped with the skills to be successful in these areas.
3. Take steps to end microaggressions. Make it clear they’re not acceptable, teach employees to avoid and challenge them, and create a culture that encourages employees to speak up when they see them.
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