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Women at Work: Progress, Opportunities, & Setbacks

New study reveals 4 myths about women’s workplace experiences and career advancement.

Kristen Kazarian

January 2, 2024

5 Min Read
Women in the workplace study
Women are more ambitious than ever, yet representation is not keeping pace. Image courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Solutions / Unsplash

A study by research firm McKinsey and Co., the ninth annual Women in the Workplace report, reveals the newest trends of women in the workplace.

The firm worked with LeanIn.Org, an online business that assists women to achieve their business goals through programs and mentorship “circles,” on the study of women in corporate America and Canada.

The group collected information from 276 participating organizations employing more than 10 million people. At these organizations, more than 27,000 employees and 270 senior HR leaders were surveyed who shared insights on their policies and practices.

The survey found that over the last nine years, women — especially women of color — were underrepresented. However, since 2015, women in C-suite roles rose from 17% to 28%, and women in roles of vice president and senior VP levels increased significantly.

There are four myths that McKinsey & Co. has debunked with the most recent survey results.

Myth 1: Women are becoming less ambitious

The study found that women are actually more ambitious than pre-pandemic times. At every stage of the corporate pipeline — from entry level to C-suite — women are committed to their careers and being promoted. In fact, nine in 10 women under the age of 30 want to be promoted to the next level, and three in four aspire to become senior leaders. Overall, 80% want to be promoted to the next level at their workplace, compared with 70% in 2019. Women of color are even more ambitious, with 88% wanting that promotion.

What has helped push this? Flexibility. With remote and hybrid positions, women are feeling less fatigued. Post-pandemic times have shown women (and men) that you can have a work/life balance and not have to choose between the two. This has increased the knowledge that you can still be ambitious while working remotely.

Myth 2: The Glass Ceiling 

Not the glass ceiling, but the broken rung to the top is what prevents us from getting to the top. For the ninth year, women face their biggest hurdle at the first critical step up to manager. This year, for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, 87 women were promoted. The gap is trending the wrong way for women of color: this year, 73 women of color were promoted to manager for every 100 men, down from 82 women of color last year.

Because of the gender difference in early promotions, men end up holding 60% of manager-level positions in a typical company, with women at 40%. Since men significantly outnumber women, there are fewer women to promote to senior managers, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.

Myth 3: Microaggressions have a micro-impact

Microaggressions are a form of everyday discrimination often rooted in bias. They include comments and actions—even subtle ones that are not overtly harmful—that demean or dismiss someone based on their gender, race, or other aspects of their identity. They signal disrespect, cause acute stress, and can negatively impact women’s careers and health.

Years of data show that women experience microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than men: They are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone junior and hear comments on their emotional state. For women with traditionally marginalized identities, these slights happen more often and are even more demeaning. As just one example, Asian and Black women are seven times more likely than White women to be confused with someone of the same race and ethnicity.

More than three-quarters (78%) of women who face microaggressions self-shield at work or adjust the way they look or act in an effort to protect themselves. For example, many women code-switch — or tone down what they say or do — to try to blend in and avoid a negative reaction at work. Black women are more than twice as likely as women overall to code-switch. And LGBTQ+ women are 2.5 times as likely to feel pressure to change their appearance to be perceived as more professional.

Myth 4: It’s mostly women who want workplace flexibility

Most employees say that working remotely with control over their schedules are top company benefits, second only to healthcare. Workplace flexibility even ranks above tried-and-true benefits such as parental leave and childcare.

As workplace flexibility has moved from a nice perk for some employees to a crucial benefit for most, women continue to value it more. This is likely because they still carry out a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work. Indeed, 38% of mothers with young children say that without workplace flexibility, they would have had to quit their job or reduce their work hours.

Companies offering remote or hybrid flexibility also relieves much of the microaggression women face in the workplace.

Work flexibility, however, is a benefit to all. Most women and men point to better work–life balance as a primary benefit of hybrid and remote work, and a majority cite less fatigue and burnout.

To get ahead of these myths and the stigma that goes with them, McKinsey & Co. suggests companies focus on five core areas:

1. Track outcomes for women’s representation.

  • Measure employees’ outcomes and experiences — and use the data to fix trouble spots.

  • Take an intersectional approach to outcome tracking.

  • Share internal goals and metrics with employees.

2. Empower managers to be effective people leaders.

  • Clarify managers’ priorities and reward results.

  • Equip managers with the skills they need to be successful.

  • Make sure managers have the time and support to get it right.

3. Address microaggressions head-on.

  • Make clear that microaggressions are not acceptable.

  • Teach employees to avoid and challenge microaggressions.

  • Create a culture where it’s normal to surface microaggressions.

4. Unlock the full potential of flexible work.

  • Establish clear expectations and norms around working flexibly.

  • Measure the impact of new initiatives to support flexibility and adjust them as needed

  • Put safeguards in place to ensure a level playing field across work arrangements.

5. Fix the broken rung, once and for all.

  • Track inputs and outcomes.

  • Work to de-bias performance reviews and promotions.

  • Invest in career advancement for women of color.

About the Author(s)

Kristen Kazarian

Managing Editor

Kristen Kazarian has been a writer and editor for more than three decades. She has worked at several consumer magazines and B2B publications in the fields of food and beverage, packaging, processing, women's interest, local news, health and nutrition, fashion and beauty, automotive, and computers.

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