One of my “favorite” – ie just plain awful – recent stories to expose the staggering tone deafness around gender parity came courtesy of John Greenhouse, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist. He was sharing some supposedly helpful advice for women seeking equality in the business world.
In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Greenhouse suggested that in order for women to rise above unconscious gender bias online, they ought to go by their initials and hide the fact that they’re women. Female readers weren’t so thrilled by the suggestion that they should be the ones responsible for fixing male bias against them.
For better advice, look to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 48% of the incoming freshmen at the School of Computer Science are women, far greater than the national average of 18%. Rather than urging women to change their behavior, the school changed the culture by launching a faculty-run mentorship group for female computer science students, which “opens doors for women across campus through networking ”, according to the college newspaper. That has attracted increasingly more women to apply to the program.
Carnegie’s advancements aside, a recent study from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org – the non profit founded by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, maven of workplace gender equality – confirms that what we suspected about corporate America is still true. In looking at employee data from 132 companies and their 4.6 million workers, researchers found that women are less likely than men to be hired into senior positions, have access to top executives or receive challenging assignments.
But there were some glimmers of hope: the report found that women are now asking for promotions and salary increases just as much as men, which the authors say signals progress – even though women still aren’t getting those rewards as often as men.
What’s more, the percentage of women who are being promoted into middle and senior management is now higher than the percentage of women in those positions at the moment. “If this pattern holds over time, the representation of mid- and senior-level women will slowly increase,” the authors wrote.
Here’s what the research tells us, along with some theories that help to explain the findings.
“Negative personality” criticism: the real reason you’re not getting promoted
We knew, as the report confirmed, that women are less likely to receive promotions than men. But it plays out in a different way than we thought. We hear a lot about the dearth of women CEOs or corporate board members, but McKinsey and Lean In found that the biggest gender disparity in promotions comes early on, when entry-level workers make the jump to managerial roles. Researchers discovered that while women make up 46% of entry-level employees, they represent just 37% of managers. In other words, for every 100 women promoted to a manager position, 130 men get advanced up the chain. For women of color, the gap is even wider.
Men and women are leaving companies at about the same rate, so attrition isn’t what’s keeping women from advancing. What could be happening here? Well, it could have to do with an implicit bias against women who ask for promotions. Even though the report says that women are now making these requests just as often as men, and are 54% likelier to get promotions than the ones who don’t ask, the researchers also found they were penalized for it. Women who negotiate for higher pay are 30% more likely than men to be accused of being “aggressive”, “bossy” and “intimidating”, a trope that implies women are held to a double standard.
In a 2014 Fortune article, Kieran Snyder, the Seattle-based CEO of the recruiting startup Textio, mused on the “abrasiveness gap” and recounted her surprise after she spoke to a friend who was considering promoting two of his high-achieving direct reports. He described the woman as “talented” but “too abrasive,” while the man was “an easy case” who “just needed to learn to be more patient”. Snyder, wondering how the perception of female “abrasiveness” might affect their advancement, collected work performance reviews from nearly 250 men and women working in technology. She was astonished to discover that a whopping 88% of the women’s reviews included critical feedback, versus just 59% of the men’s.
“Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down,” she wrote in Fortune. Snyder acknowledged that the reviews were shared with her voluntarily, so her study had limitations. But she was more floored by what she called “negative personality criticism”, which was a feature of 75% of the women’s reviews with critical feedback. In other words, they were scolded as “bossy”, “strident” and “abrasive”. Such personality criticisms only entered two of the men’s reviews with critical feedback.
Why are men skipping rungs on the corporate ladder?
Aside from what appears to be a cultural discomfort with women doing exactly what men have been doing all along, another theory on why women aren’t getting the first promotion to manager is that it’s due to their difficult bosses, and that companies have a systemic bias when hiring. A 2010 study from the research firm Catalyst tracked more than 4,000 MBA students who graduated between 1996 and 2007, and found that male holders of MBA degrees routinely started out in more senior roles than their female counterparts. Even when statistically accounting for experience, industry, whether the students had children or whether they aspired to be senior executives, the findings were the same.
In other words, it had nothing to do with lack of ambition or taking time off to have kids. In placing female hires, there were probably implicit biases and assumptions on the part of hiring managers that women weren’t gunning for the C-suite, or would soon leave to start a family. “Firms must consider how their talent management processes contribute to the problem,” the authors wrote. “This is especially critical regarding first jobs, since they set the stage for all the inequities that follow.”
After starting higher up, the men were also able to rise faster. The exception was for the 10% of female MBA graduates who started out at as middle managers or higher – they advanced just as quickly as the men. After slicing and dicing the numbers, the researchers noticed that among the rest of the women, 25% said they’d left their first post-MBA jobs because of bad bosses, versus just 16% of the men. In other words, managers may have been treating their direct reports differently based on gender, allowing men to get a leg up.
This was something that showed up in the Lean In and McKinsey report, too. Those researchers separately polled 34,000 workers on their thoughts about gender and the workplace, and found that women felt subtly disadvantaged in some ways. For example, 67% of women reported being able to fully participate in meetings, versus 74% of men – manterruptions, anyone?
And while 51% of women in senior management said they’d had a substantive interaction with a senior leader at least once a week, some 62% of men said they did. In fact, women were three times more likely to have personal networks mostly made up of women, which probably compounded their lack of exposure to the power players and decision makers at work – because those people are vastly, disproportionately male. A cycle, if you will.
So what do companies do to break out of it? McKinsey and Lean In say that businesses can achieve better gender parity in a number of easy-to-implement ways. Executives ought to talk more openly with employees about the gender issue and why it matters. When hiring, they should consider doing blind resume reviews, in which the name and gender of the potential employee is removed, an easy way to cut down bias that only 4% of companies report doing. Companies should also share any available gender data with their employees, which just one-third of companies do.
By Marisa Taylor
Source: The Guardian
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