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Review article, gender inequalities in the workplace: the effects of organizational structures, processes, practices, and decision makers’ sexism.

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Gender inequality in organizations is a complex phenomenon that can be seen in organizational structures, processes, and practices. For women, some of the most harmful gender inequalities are enacted within human resources (HRs) practices. This is because HR practices (i.e., policies, decision-making, and their enactment) affect the hiring, training, pay, and promotion of women. We propose a model of gender discrimination in HR that emphasizes the reciprocal nature of gender inequalities within organizations. We suggest that gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and in the enactment of HR practices stems from gender inequalities in broader organizational structures, processes, and practices. This includes leadership, structure, strategy, culture, organizational climate, as well as HR policies. In addition, organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism can affect their likelihood of making gender biased HR-related decisions and/or behaving in a sexist manner while enacting HR practices. Importantly, institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices play a pre-eminent role because not only do they affect HR practices, they also provide a socializing context for organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. Although we portray gender inequality as a self-reinforcing system that can perpetuate discrimination, important levers for reducing discrimination are identified.


The workplace has sometimes been referred to as an inhospitable place for women due to the multiple forms of gender inequalities present (e.g., Abrams, 1991 ). Some examples of how workplace discrimination negatively affects women’s earnings and opportunities are the gender wage gap (e.g., Peterson and Morgan, 1995 ), the dearth of women in leadership ( Eagly and Carli, 2007 ), and the longer time required for women (vs. men) to advance in their careers ( Blau and DeVaro, 2007 ). In other words, workplace discrimination contributes to women’s lower socio-economic status. Importantly, such discrimination against women largely can be attributed to human resources (HR) policies and HR-related decision-making. Furthermore, when employees interact with organizational decision makers during HR practices, or when they are told the outcomes of HR-related decisions, they may experience personal discrimination in the form of sexist comments. Both the objective disadvantages of lower pay, status, and opportunities at work, and the subjective experiences of being stigmatized, affect women’s psychological and physical stress, mental and physical health ( Goldenhar et al., 1998 ; Adler et al., 2000 ; Schmader et al., 2008 ; Borrel et al., 2010 ),job satisfaction and organizational commitment ( Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ), and ultimately, their performance ( Cohen-Charash and Spector, 2001 ).

Within this paper, we delineate the nature of discrimination within HR policies, decisions, and their enactment, as well as explore the causes of such discrimination in the workplace. Our model is shown in Figure 1 . In the Section “Discrimination in HR Related Practices: HR Policy, Decisions, and their Enactment,” we explain the distinction between HR policy, HR-related decision-making, and HR enactment and their relations to each other. Gender inequalities in HR policy are a form of institutional discrimination. We review evidence of institutional discrimination against women within HR policies set out to determine employee selection, performance evaluations, and promotions. In contrast, discrimination in HR-related decisions and their enactment can result from organizational decision makers’ biased responses: it is a form of personal discrimination. Finally, we provide evidence of personal discrimination against women by organizational decision makers in HR-related decision-making and in the enactment of HR policies.


FIGURE 1. A model of the root causes of gender discrimination in HR policies, decision-making, and enactment.

In the Section “The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on HR Practices,” we focus on the link between institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices that can lead to personal discrimination in HR practices (see Figure 1 ). Inspired by the work of Gelfand et al. (2007) , we propose that organizational structures, processes, and practices (i.e., leadership, structure, strategy, culture, climate, and HR policy) are interrelated and may contribute to discrimination. Accordingly, gender inequalities in each element can affect the others, creating a self-reinforcing system that can perpetuate institutional discrimination throughout the organization and that can lead to discrimination in HR policies, decision-making, and enactment. We also propose that these relations between gender inequalities in the organizational structures, processes, and practices and discrimination in HR practices can be bidirectional (see Figure 1 ). Thus, we also review how HR practices can contribute to gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices.

In the Section “The Effect of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism on How Organizational Decision Makers’ Conduct HR Practices,” we delineate the link between organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism and their likelihood of making gender-biased HR-related decisions and/or behaving in a sexist manner when enacting HR policies (e.g., engaging in gender harassment). We focus on two forms of sexist attitudes: hostile and benevolent sexism ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Hostile sexism involves antipathy toward, and negative stereotypes about, agentic women. In contrast, benevolent sexism involves positive but paternalistic views of women as highly communal. Whereas previous research on workplace discrimination has focused on forms of sexism that are hostile in nature, we extend this work by explaining how benevolent sexism, which is more subtle, can also contribute in meaningful yet distinct ways to gender discrimination in HR practices.

In the Section “The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on Organizational Decision Makers’ Levels of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism,” we describe how institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices play a critical role in our model because not only do they affect HR-related decisions and the enactment of HR policies, they also provide a socializing context for organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. In other words, where more institutional discrimination is present, we can expect higher levels of sexism—a third link in our model—which leads to gender bias in HR practices.

In the Section “How to Reduce Gender Discrimination in Organizations,” we discuss how organizations can reduce gender discrimination. We suggest that, to reduce discrimination, organizations should focus on: HR practices, other closely related organizational structures, processes, and practices, and the reduction of organizational decision makers’ level of sexism. Organizations should take such a multifaceted approach because, consistent with our model, gender discrimination is a result of a complex interplay between these factors. Therefore, a focus on only one factor may not be as effective if all the other elements in the model continue to promote gender inequality.

The model we propose for understanding gender inequalities at work is, of course, limited and not intended to be exhaustive. First, we only focus on women’s experience of discrimination. Although men also face discrimination, the focus of this paper is on women because they are more often targets ( Branscombe, 1998 ; Schmitt et al., 2002 ; McLaughlin et al., 2012 ) and discrimination is more psychologically damaging for women than for men ( Barling et al., 1996 ; Schmitt et al., 2002 ). Furthermore, we draw on research from Western, individualistic countries conducted between the mid-1980s to the mid-2010s that might not generalize to other countries or time frames. In addition, this model derives from research that has been conducted primarily in sectors dominated by men. This is because gender discrimination ( Mansfield et al., 1991 ; Welle and Heilman, 2005 ) and harassment ( Mansfield et al., 1991 ; Berdhal, 2007 ) against women occur more in environments dominated by men. Now that we have outlined the sections of the paper and our model, we now turn to delineating how gender discrimination in the workplace can be largely attributed to HR practices.

Discrimination in HR Related Practices: HR Policy, Decisions, and their Enactment

In this section, we explore the nature of gender discrimination in HR practices, which involves HR policies, HR-related decision-making, and their enactment by organizational decision makers. HR is a system of organizational practices aimed at managing employees and ensuring that they are accomplishing organizational goals ( Wright et al., 1994 ). HR functions include: selection, performance evaluation, leadership succession, and training. Depending on the size and history of the organization, HR systems can range from those that are well structured and supported by an entire department, led by HR specialists, to haphazard sets of policies and procedures enacted by managers and supervisors without formal training. HR practices are critically important because they determine the access employees have to valued reward and outcomes within an organization, and can also influence their treatment within an organization ( Levitin et al., 1971 ).

Human resource practices can be broken down into formal HR policy, HR-related decision-making, and the enactment of HR policies and decisions. HR policy codifies practices for personnel functions, performance evaluations, employee relations, and resource planning ( Wright et al., 1994 ). HR-related decision-making occurs when organizational decision makers (i.e., managers, supervisors, or HR personnel) employ HR policy to determine how it will be applied to a particular situation and individual. The enactment of HR involves the personal interactions between organizational decision makers and job candidates or employees when HR policies are applied. Whereas HR policy can reflect institutional discrimination, HR-related decision-making and enactment can reflect personal discrimination by organizational decision makers.

Institutional Discrimination in HR Policy

Human resource policies that are inherently biased against a group of people, regardless of their job-related knowledge, skills, abilities, and performance can be termed institutional discrimination. Institutional discrimination against women can occur in each type of HR policy from the recruitment and selection of an individual into an organization, through his/her role assignments, training, pay, performance evaluations, promotion, and termination. For instance, if women are under-represented in a particular educational program or a particular job type and those credentials or previous job experience are required to be considered for selection, women are being systematically, albeit perhaps not intentionally, discriminated against. In another example, there is gender discrimination if a test is used in the selection battery for which greater gender differences emerge, than those that emerge for job performance ratings ( Hough et al., 2001 ). Thus, institutional discrimination can be present within various aspects of HR selection policy, and can negatively affect women’s work outcomes.

Institutional discrimination against women also occurs in performance evaluations that are used to determine organizational rewards (e.g., compensation), opportunities (e.g., promotion, role assignments), and punishments (e.g., termination). Gender discrimination can be formalized into HR policy if criteria used by organizational decision makers to evaluate job performance systematically favor men over women. For instance, “face time” is a key performance metric that rewards employees who are at the office more than those who are not. Given that women are still the primary caregivers ( Acker, 1990 ; Fuegen et al., 2004 ), women use flexible work arrangements more often than men and, consequently, face career penalties because they score lower on face time ( Glass, 2004 ). Thus, biased criteria in performance evaluation policies can contribute to gender discrimination.

Human resource policies surrounding promotions and opportunities for advancement are another area of concern. In organizations with more formal job ladders that are used to dictate and constrain workers’ promotion opportunities, women are less likely to advance ( Perry et al., 1994 ). This occurs because job ladders tend to be divided by gender, and as such, gender job segregation that is seen at entry-level positions will be strengthened as employees move up their specific ladder with no opportunity to cross into other lines of advancement. Thus, women will lack particular job experiences that are not available within their specific job ladders, making them unqualified for advancement ( De Pater et al., 2010 ).

In sum, institutional discrimination can be present within HR policies set out to determine employee selection, performance evaluations, and promotions. These policies can have significant effects on women’s careers. However, HR policy can only be used to guide HR-related decision-making. In reality, it is organizational decision-makers, that is, managers, supervisors, HR personnel who, guided by policy, must evaluate job candidates or employees and decide how policy will be applied to individuals.

Personal Discrimination in HR-Related Decision-Making

The practice of HR-related decision-making involves social cognition in which others’ competence, potential, and deservingness are assessed by organizational decision makers. Thus, like all forms of social cognition, HR-related decision-making is open to personal biases. HR-related decisions are critically important because they determine women’s pay and opportunities at work (e.g., promotions, training opportunities). Personal discrimination against women by organizational decision makers can occur in each stage of HR-related decision-making regarding recruitment and selection, role assignments, training opportunities, pay, performance evaluation, promotion, and termination.

Studies with varying methodologies show that women face personal discrimination when going through the selection process (e.g., Goldberg, 1968 ; Rosen and Jerdee, 1974 ). Meta-analyses reveal that, when being considered for male-typed (i.e., male dominated, believed-to-be-for-men) jobs, female candidates are evaluated more negatively and recommended for employment less often by study participants, compared with matched male candidates (e.g., Hunter et al., 1982 ; Tosi and Einbender, 1985 ; Olian et al., 1988 ; Davison and Burke, 2000 ). For example, in audit studies, which involve sending ostensibly real applications for job openings while varying the gender of the applicant, female applicants are less likely to be interviewed or called back, compared with male applicants (e.g., McIntyre et al., 1980 ; Firth, 1982 ). In a recent study, male and female biology, chemistry, and physics professors rated an undergraduate science student for a laboratory manager position ( Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ). The male applicant was rated as significantly more competent and hireable, offered a higher starting salary (about $4000), and offered more career mentoring than the female applicant was. In summary, women face a distinct disadvantage when being considered for male-typed jobs.

There is ample evidence that women experience biased performance evaluations on male-typed tasks. A meta-analysis of experimental studies reveals that women in leadership positions receive lower performance evaluations than matched men; this is amplified when women act in a stereotypically masculine, that is, agentic fashion ( Eagly et al., 1992 ). Further, in masculine domains, women are held to a higher standard of performance than men are. For example, in a study of military cadets, men and women gave their peers lower ratings if they were women, despite having objectively equal qualifications to men ( Boldry et al., 2001 ). Finally, women are evaluated more poorly in situations that involve complex problem solving; in these situations, people are skeptical regarding women’s expertise and discredit expert women’s opinions but give expert men the benefit of the doubt ( Thomas-Hunt and Phillips, 2004 ).

Sometimes particular types of women are more likely to be discriminated against in selection and performance evaluation decisions. Specifically, agentic women, that is, those who behave in an assertive, task-oriented fashion, are rated as less likeable and less hireable than comparable agentic male applicants ( Heilman and Okimoto, 2007 ; Rudman and Phelan, 2008 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). In addition, there is evidence of discrimination against pregnant women when they apply for jobs ( Hebl et al., 2007 ; Morgan et al., 2013 ). Further, women who are mothers are recommended for promotion less than women who are not mothers or men with or without children ( Heilman and Okimoto, 2008 ). Why might people discriminate specifically against agentic women and pregnant women or mothers, who are seemingly very different? The stereotype content model, accounts for how agentic women, who are perceived to be high in competence and low in warmth, will be discriminated against because of feelings of competition; whereas, pregnant women and mothers, who are seen as low in competence, but high in warmth, will be discriminated against because of a perceived lack of deservingness ( Fiske et al., 1999 , 2002 ; Cuddy et al., 2004 ). Taken together, research has uncovered that different forms of bias toward specific subtypes of women have the same overall effect—bias in selection and performance evaluation decisions.

Women are also likely to receive fewer opportunities at work, compared with men, resulting in their under-representation at higher levels of management and leadership within organizations ( Martell et al., 1996 ; Eagly and Carli, 2007 ). Managers give women fewer challenging roles and fewer training opportunities, compared with men ( King et al., 2012 ; Glick, 2013 ). For instance, female managers ( Lyness and Thompson, 1997 ) and midlevel workers ( De Pater et al., 2010 ) have less access to high-level responsibilities and challenges that are precursors to promotion. Further, men are more likely to be given key leadership assignments in male-dominated fields and in female-dominated fields (e.g., Maume, 1999 ; De Pater et al., 2010 ). This is detrimental given that challenging roles, especially developmental ones, help employees gain important skills needed to excel in their careers ( Spreitzer et al., 1997 ).

Furthermore, managers rate women as having less promotion potential than men ( Roth et al., 2012 ). Given the same level of qualifications, managers are less likely to grant promotions to women, compared with men ( Lazear and Rosen, 1990 ). Thus, men have a faster ascent in organizational hierarchies than women ( Cox and Harquail, 1991 ; Stroh et al., 1992 ; Blau and DeVaro, 2007 ). Even minimal amounts of gender discrimination in promotion decisions for a particular job or level can have large, cumulative effects given the pyramid structure of most hierarchical organizations ( Martell et al., 1996 ; Baxter and Wright, 2000 ). Therefore, discrimination by organizational decision makers results in the under-promotion of women.

Finally, women are underpaid, compared with men. In a comprehensive US study using data from 1983 to 2000, after controlling for human capital factors that could affect wages (e.g., education level, work experience), the researchers found that women were paid 22% less than men ( U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2003 ). Further, within any given occupation, men typically have higher wages than women; this “within-occupation” wage gap is especially prominent in more highly paid occupations ( U.S. Census Bureau, 2007 ). In a study of over 2000 managers, women were compensated less than men were, even after controlling for a number of human capital factors ( Ostroff and Atwater, 2003 ). Experimental work suggests that personal biases by organizational decision makers contribute to the gender wage gap. When participants are asked to determine starting salaries for matched candidates that differ by gender, they pay men more (e.g., Steinpreis et al., 1999 ; Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ). Such biases are consequential because starting salaries determine life-time earnings ( Gerhart and Rynes, 1991 ). In experimental studies, when participants evaluate a man vs. a woman who is matched on job performance, they choose to compensate men more ( Marini, 1989 ; Durden and Gaynor, 1998 ; Lips, 2003 ). Therefore, discrimination in HR-related decision-making by organizational decision makers can contribute to women being paid less than men are.

Taken together, we have shown that there is discrimination against women in decision-making related to HR. These biases from organizational decision makers can occur in each stage of HR-related decision-making and these biased HR decisions have been shown to negatively affect women’s pay and opportunities at work. In the next section, we review how biased HR practices are enacted, which can involve gender harassment.

Personal Discrimination in HR Enactment

By HR enactment, we refer to those situations where current or prospective employees go through HR processes or when they receive news of their outcomes from organizational decision makers regarding HR-related issues. Personal gender discrimination can occur when employees are given sexist messages, by organizational decision makers, related to HR enactment. More specifically, this type of personal gender discrimination is termed gender harassment, and consists of a range of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that convey sexist, insulting, or hostile attitudes about women ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995a , b ). Gender harassment is the most common form of sex-based discrimination ( Fitzgerald et al., 1988 ; Schneider et al., 1997 ). For example, across the military in the United States, 52% of the 9,725 women surveyed reported that they had experienced gender harassment in the last year ( Leskinen et al., 2011 , Study 1). In a random sample of attorneys from a large federal judicial circuit, 32% of the 1,425 women attorneys surveyed had experienced gender harassment in the last 5 years ( Leskinen et al., 2011 , Study 2). When examining women’s experiences of gender harassment, 60% of instances were perpetrated by their supervisor/manager or a person in a leadership role (cf. Crocker and Kalemba, 1999 ; McDonald et al., 2008 ). Thus, personal discrimination in the form of gender harassment is a common behavior; however, is it one that organizational decision makers engage in when enacting HR processes and outcomes?

Although it might seem implausible that organizational decision makers would convey sexist sentiments to women when giving them the news of HR-related decisions, there have been high-profile examples from discrimination lawsuits where this has happened. For example, in a class action lawsuit against Walmart, female workers claimed they were receiving fewer promotions than men despite superior qualifications and records of service. In that case, the district manager was accused of confiding to some of the women who were overlooked for promotions that they were passed over because he was not in favor of women being in upper management positions ( Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 2004/2011 ). In addition, audit studies, wherein matched men and women apply to real jobs, have revealed that alongside discrimination ( McIntyre et al., 1980 ; Firth, 1982 ; Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ), women experience verbal gender harassment when applying for sex atypical jobs, such as sexist comments as well as skeptical or discouraging responses from hiring staff ( Neumark, 1996 ). Finally, gender harassment toward women when HR policies are enacted can also take the form of offensive comments and denying women promotions due to pregnancy or the chance of pregnancy. For example, in Moore v. Alabama , an employee was 8 months pregnant and the woman’s supervisor allegedly looked at her belly and said “I was going to make you head of the office, but look at you now” ( Moore v. Alabama State University, 1996 , p. 431; Williams, 2003 ). Thus, organizational decision makers will at times convey sexist sentiments to women when giving them the news of HR-related decisions.

Interestingly, whereas discrimination in HR policy and in HR-related decision-making is extremely difficult to detect ( Crosby et al., 1986 ; Major, 1994 ), gender harassment in HR enactment provides direct cues to recipients that discrimination is occurring. In other words, although women’s lives are negatively affected in concrete ways by discrimination in HR policy and decisions (e.g., not receiving a job, being underpaid), they may not perceive their negative outcomes as due to gender discrimination. Indeed, there is a multitude of evidence that women and other stigmatized group members are loath to make attributions to discrimination ( Crosby, 1984 ; Vorauer and Kumhyr, 2001 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ) and instead are likely to make internal attributions for negative evaluations unless they are certain the evaluator is biased against their group ( Ruggiero and Taylor, 1995 ; Major et al., 2003 ). However, when organizational decision makers engage in gender harassment during HR enactment women should be more likely to interpret HR policy and HR-related decisions as discriminatory.

Now that we have specified the nature of institutional gender discrimination in HR policy and personal discrimination in HR-related decision-making and in HR enactment, we turn to the issue of understanding the causes of such discrimination: gender discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices, and personal biases of organizational decision makers.

The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on HR Practices

The first contextual factor within which gender inequalities can be institutionalized is leadership. Leadership is a process wherein an individual (e.g., CEOs, managers) influences others in an effort to reach organizational goals ( Chemers, 1997 ; House and Aditya, 1997 ). Leaders determine and communicate what the organization’s priorities are to all members of the organization. Leaders are important as they affect the other organizational structures, processes, and practices. Specifically, leaders set culture, set policy, set strategy, and are role models for socialization. We suggest that one important way institutional gender inequality in leadership exists is when women are under-represented, compared with men—particularly when women are well-represented at lower levels within an organization.

An underrepresentation of women in leadership can be perpetuated easily because the gender of organizational leaders affects the degree to which there is gender discrimination, gender supportive policies, and a gender diversity supportive climate within an organization ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Organizational members are likely to perceive that the climate for women is positive when women hold key positions in the organization ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Specifically, the presence of women in key positions acts as a vivid symbol indicating that the organization supports gender diversity. Consistent with this, industries that have fewer female high status managers have a greater gender wage gap ( Cohen and Huffman, 2007 ). Further, women who work with a male supervisor perceive less organizational support, compared with those who work with a female supervisor ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). In addition, women who work in departments that are headed by a man report experiencing more gender discrimination, compared with their counterparts in departments headed by women ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Some of these effects may be mediated by a similar-to-me bias ( Tsui and O’Reilly, 1989 ), where leaders set up systems that reward and promote individuals like themselves, which can lead to discrimination toward women when leaders are predominantly male ( Davison and Burke, 2000 ; Roth et al., 2012 ). Thus, gender inequalities in leadership affect women’s experiences in the workplace and their likelihood of facing discrimination.

The second contextual factor to consider is organizational structure. The formal structure of an organization is how an organization arranges itself and it consists of employee hierarchies, departments, etc. ( Grant, 2010 ). An example of institutional discrimination in the formal structure of an organization are job ladders, which are typically segregated by gender ( Perry et al., 1994 ). Such gender-segregated job ladders typically exist within different departments of the organization. Women belonging to gender-segregated networks within organizations ( Brass, 1985 ) have less access to information about jobs, less status, and less upward mobility within the organization ( Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989 ; McDonald et al., 2009 ). This is likely because in gender-segregated networks, women have less visibility and lack access to individuals with power ( Ragins and Sundstrom, 1989 ). In gender-segregated networks, it is also difficult for women to find female mentors because there is a lack of women in high-ranking positions ( Noe, 1988 ; Linehan and Scullion, 2008 ). Consequently, the organizational structure can be marked by gender inequalities that reduce women’s chances of reaching top-level positions in an organization.

Gender inequalities can be inherent in the structure of an organization when there are gender segregated departments, job ladders, and networks, which are intimately tied to gender discrimination in HR practices. For instance, if HR policies are designed such that pay is determined based on comparisons between individuals only within a department (e.g., department-wide reporting structure, job descriptions, performance evaluations), then this can lead to a devaluation of departments dominated by women. The overrepresentation of women in certain jobs leads to the lower status of those jobs; consequently, the pay brackets for these jobs decrease over time as the number of women in these jobs increase (e.g., Huffman and Velasco, 1997 ; Reilly and Wirjanto, 1999 ). Similarly, networks led by women are also devalued for pay. For example, in a study of over 2,000 managers, after controlling for performance, the type of job, and the functional area (e.g., marketing, sales, accounting), those who worked with female mangers had lower wages than those who worked with male managers ( Ostroff and Atwater, 2003 ). Thus, gender inequalities in an organization’s structure in terms of gender segregation have reciprocal effects with gender discrimination in HR policy and decision-making.

Another contextual factor in our model is organizational strategy and how institutional discrimination within strategy is related to discrimination in HR practices. Strategy is a plan, method, or process by which an organization attempts to achieve its objectives, such as being profitable, maintaining and expanding its consumer base, marketing strategy, etc. ( Grant, 2010 ). Strategy can influence the level of inequality within an organization ( Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990 ; Hunter et al., 2001 ). For example, Hooters, a restaurant chain, has a marketing strategy to sexually attract heterosexual males, which has led to discrimination in HR policy, decisions, and enactment because only young, good-looking women are considered qualified ( Schneyer, 1998 ). When faced with appearance-based discrimination lawsuits regarding their hiring policies, Hooters has responded by claiming that such appearance requirements are bona fide job qualifications given their marketing strategy (for reviews, see Schneyer, 1998 ; Adamitis, 2000 ). Hooters is not alone, as many other establishments attempt to attract male cliental by requiring their female servers to meet a dress code involving a high level of grooming (make-up, hair), a high heels requirement, and a revealing uniform ( McGinley, 2007 ). Thus, sexist HR policies and practices in which differential standards are applied to male and female employees can stem from a specific organizational strategy ( Westall, 2015 ).

We now consider institutional gender bias within organizational culture and how it relates to discrimination in HR policies. Organizational culture refers to collectively held beliefs, assumptions, and values held by organizational members ( Trice and Beyer, 1993 ; Schein, 2010 ). Cultures arise from the values of the founders of the organization and assumptions about the right way of doing things, which are learned from dealing with challenges over time ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). The founders and leaders of an organization are the most influential in forming, maintaining, and changing culture over time (e.g., Trice and Beyer, 1993 ; Jung et al., 2008 ; Hartnell and Walumbwa, 2011 ). Organizational culture can contribute to gender inequalities because culture constrains people’s ideas of what is possible: their strategies of action ( Swidler, 1986 ). In other words, when people encounter a problem in their workplace, the organizational culture—who we are, how we act, what is right—will provide only a certain realm of behavioral responses. For instance, in organizational cultures marked by greater gender inequality, women may have lower hopes and expectations for promotion, and when they are discriminated against, may be less likely to imagine that they can appeal their outcomes ( Kanter, 1977 ; Cassirer and Reskin, 2000 ). Furthermore, in organizational cultures marked by gender inequality, organizational decision makers should hold stronger descriptive and proscriptive gender stereotypes: they should more strongly believe that women have less ability to lead, less career commitment, and less emotional stability, compared with men ( Eagly et al., 1992 ; Heilman, 2001 ). We expand upon this point later.

Other aspects of organizational culture that are less obviously related to gender can also lead to discrimination in HR practices. For instance, an organizational culture that emphasizes concerns with meritocracy, can lead organizational members to oppose HR efforts to increase gender equality. This is because when people believe that outcomes ought to go only to those who are most deserving, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of believing that outcomes currently do go to those who are most deserving ( Son Hing et al., 2011 ). Therefore, people will believe that men deserve their elevated status and women deserve their subordinated status at work ( Castilla and Benard, 2010 ). Furthermore, the more people care about merit-based outcomes, the more they oppose affirmative action and diversity initiatives for women ( Bobocel et al., 1998 ; Son Hing et al., 2011 ), particularly when they do not recognize that discrimination occurs against women in the absence of such policies ( Son Hing et al., 2002 ). Thus, a particular organizational culture can influence the level of discrimination against women in HR and prevent the adoption of HR policies that would mitigate gender discrimination.

Finally, gender inequalities can be seen in organizational climates. An organizational climate consists of organizational members’ shared perceptions of the formal and informal organizational practices, procedures, and routines ( Schneider et al., 2011 ) that arise from direct experiences of the organization’s culture ( Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Organizational climates tend to be conceptualized and studied as “climates for” an organizational strategy ( Schneider, 1975 ; Ostroff et al., 2012 ). Gender inequalities are most clearly reflected in two forms of climate: climates for diversity and climates for sexual harassment.

A positive climate for diversity exists when organizational members perceive that diverse groups are included, empowered, and treated fairly. When employees perceive a less supportive diversity climate, they perceive greater workplace discrimination ( Cox, 1994 ; Ragins and Cornwall, 2001 ; Triana and García, 2009 ), and experience lower organizational commitment and job satisfaction ( Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ), and higher turnover intentions ( Triana et al., 2010 ). Thus, in organizations with a less supportive diversity climate, women are more likely to leave the organization, which contributes to the underrepresentation of women in already male-dominated arenas ( Miner-Rubino and Cortina, 2004 ).

A climate for sexual harassment involves perceptions that the organization is permissive of sexual harassment. In organizational climates that are permissive of harassment, victims are reluctant to come forward because they believe that their complaints will not be taken seriously ( Hulin et al., 1996 ) and will result in negative personal consequences (e.g., Offermann and Malamut, 2002 ). Furthermore, men with a proclivity for harassment are more likely to act out these behaviors when permissive factors are present ( Pryor et al., 1993 ). Therefore, a permissive climate for sexual harassment can result in more harassing behaviors, which can lead women to disengage from their work and ultimately leave the organization ( Kath et al., 2009 ).

Organizational climates for diversity and for sexual harassment are inextricably linked to HR practices. For instance, a factor that leads to perceptions of diversity climates is whether the HR department has diversity training (seminars, workshops) and how much time and money is devoted to diversity efforts ( Triana and García, 2009 ). Similarly, a climate for sexual harassment depends on organizational members’ perceptions of how strict the workplace’s sexual harassment policy is, and how likely offenders are to be punished ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995b ; Hulin et al., 1996 ). Thus, HR policies, decision-making, and their enactment strongly affect gender inequalities in organizational climates and gender inequalities throughout an organization.

In summary, gender inequalities can exist within organizational structures, processes, and practices. However, organizational leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and climate do not inherently need to be sexist. It could be possible for these organizational structures, processes, and practices to promote gender equality. We return to this issue in the conclusion section.

The Effect of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism on How Organizational Decision Makers’ Conduct HR Practices

In this section, we explore how personal biases can affect personal discrimination in HR-related decisions and their enactment. Others have focused on how negative or hostile attitudes toward women predict discrimination in the workplace. However, we extend this analysis by drawing on ambivalent sexism theory, which involves hostile sexism (i.e., antagonistic attitudes toward women) and benevolent sexism (i.e., paternalistic attitudes toward women; see also Glick, 2013 ), both of which lead to discrimination against women.

Stereotyping processes are one possible explanation of how discrimination against women in male-typed jobs occurs and how women are relegated to the “pink ghetto” ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). Gender stereotypes, that is, expectations of what women and men are like, and what they should be like, are one of the most powerful schemas activated when people encounter others ( Fiske et al., 1991 ; Stangor et al., 1992 ). According to status characteristics theory, people’s group memberships convey important information about their status and their competence on specific tasks ( Berger et al., 1974 ; Berger et al., 1998 ; Correll and Ridgeway, 2003 ). Organizational decision makers will, for many jobs, have different expectations for men’s and women’s competence and job performance. Expectations of stereotyped-group members’ success can affect gender discrimination that occurs in HR-related decisions and enactment ( Roberson et al., 2007 ). For example, men are preferred over women for masculine jobs and women are preferred over men for feminine jobs ( Davison and Burke, 2000 ). Thus, the more that a workplace role is inconsistent with the attributes ascribed to women, the more a particular woman might be seen as lacking “fit” with that role, resulting in decreased performance expectations ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ).

Furthermore, because women are associated with lower status, and men with higher status, women experience backlash for pursuing high status roles (e.g., leadership) in the workplace ( Rudman et al., 2012 ). In other words, agentic women who act competitively and confidently in a leadership role, are rated as more socially deficient, less likeable and less hireable, compared with men who act the same way ( Rudman, 1998 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ). Interestingly though, if women pursue roles in the workplace that are congruent with traditional gender expectations, they will elicit positive reactions ( Eagly and Karau, 2002 ).

Thus, cultural, widely known, gender stereotypes can affect HR-related decisions. However, such an account does not take into consideration individual differences among organizational decision makers (e.g., managers, supervisors, or HR personnel) who may vary in the extent to which they endorse sexist attitudes or stereotypes. Individual differences in various forms of sexism (e.g., modern sexism, neosexism) have been demonstrated to lead to personal discrimination in the workplace ( Hagen and Kahn, 1975 ; Beaton et al., 1996 ; Hitlan et al., 2009 ). Ambivalent sexism theory builds on earlier theories of sexism by including attitudes toward women that, while sexist, are often experienced as positive in valence by perceivers and targets ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Therefore, we draw on ambivalent sexism theory, which conceptualizes sexism as a multidimensional construct that encompasses both hostile and benevolent attitudes toward women ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 , 2001 ).

Hostile sexism involves antipathy and negative stereotypes about women, such as beliefs that women are incompetent, overly emotional, and sexually manipulative. Hostile sexism also involves beliefs that men should be more powerful than women and fears that women will try to take power from men ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ; Cikara et al., 2008 ). In contrast, benevolent sexism involves overall positive views of women, as long as they occupy traditionally feminine roles. Individuals with benevolently sexist beliefs characterize women as weak and needing protection, support, and adoration. Importantly, hostile and benevolent sexism tend to go hand-in-hand (with a typical correlation of 0.40; Glick et al., 2000 ). This is because ambivalent sexists, people who are high in benevolent and hostile sexism, believe that women should occupy restricted domestic roles and that women are weaker than men are ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Ambivalent sexists reconcile their potentially contradictory attitudes about women by acting hostile toward women whom they believe are trying to steal men’s power (e.g., feminists, professionals who show competence) and by acting benevolently toward traditional women (e.g., homemakers) who reinforce conventional gender relations and who serve men ( Glick et al., 1997 ). An individual difference approach allows us to build on the earlier models ( Heilman, 1983 ; Eagly and Karau, 2002 ; Rudman et al., 2012 ), by specifying who is more likely to discriminate against women and why.

Organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism should discriminate more against women in HR-related decisions ( Glick et al., 1997 ; Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). For instance, people high in hostile sexism have been found to evaluate candidates, who are believed to be women, more negatively and give lower employment recommendations for a management position, compared with matched candidates believed to be men ( Salvaggio et al., 2009 ) 1 . In another study, among participants who evaluated a female candidate for a managerial position, those higher in hostile sexism were less likely to recommend her for hire, compared with those lower in hostile sexism ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). Interestingly, among those evaluating a matched man for the same position, those higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism were more likely to recommend him for hire ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ). According to ambivalent sexism theorists ( Glick et al., 1997 ), because people high in hostile sexism see women as a threat to men’s status, they act as gatekeepers denying women access to more prestigious or masculine jobs.

Furthermore, when enacting HR policies and decisions, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism should discriminate more against women in the form of gender harassment. Gender harassment can involve hostile terms of address, negative comments regarding women in management, sexist jokes, and sexist behavior ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995a , b ). It has been found that people higher (vs. lower) in hostile sexism have more lenient attitudes toward the sexual harassment of women, which involves gender harassment, in the workplace ( Begany and Milburn, 2002 ; Russell and Trigg, 2004 ). Furthermore, men who more strongly believe that women are men’s adversaries tell more sexist jokes to a woman ( Mitchell et al., 2004 ). Women also report experiencing more incivility (i.e., low level, rude behavior) in the workplace than men ( Björkqvist et al., 1994 ; Cortina et al., 2001 , 2002 ), which could be due to hostile attitudes toward women. In summary, the evidence is consistent with the idea that organizational decision makers’ hostile sexism should predict their gender harassing behavior during HR enactment; however, more research is needed for such a conclusion.

In addition, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should discriminate more against women when making HR-related decisions. It has been found that people higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism are more likely to automatically associate men with high-authority and women with low-authority roles and to implicitly stereotype men as agentic and women as communal ( Rudman and Kilianski, 2000 ). Thus, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should more strongly believe that women are unfit for organizational roles that are demanding, challenging, and requiring agentic behavior. Indeed, in studies of male MBA students those higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism assigned a fictional woman less challenging tasks than a matched man ( King et al., 2012 ). The researchers reasoned that this occurred because men are attempting to “protect” women from the struggles of challenging work. Although there has been little research conducted that has looked at benevolent sexism and gender discrimination in HR-related decisions, the findings are consistent with our model.

Finally, organizational decision makers who are higher (vs. lower) in benevolent sexism should engage in a complex form of gender discrimination when enacting HR policy and decisions that involves mixed messages: women are more likely to receive messages of positive verbal feedback (e.g., “stellar work,” “excellent work”) but lower numeric ratings on performance appraisals, compared with men ( Biernat et al., 2012 ). It is proposed that this pattern of giving women positive messages about their performance while rating them poorly reflects benevolent sexists’ desire to protect women from harsh criticism. However, given that performance appraisals are used for promotion decisions and that constructive feedback is needed for learning, managers’ unwillingness to give women negative verbal criticisms can lead to skill plateau and career stagnation.

Furthermore, exposure to benevolent sexism can harm women’s motivation, goals and performance. Adolescent girls whose mothers are high in benevolent (but not hostile) sexism display lower academic goals and academic performance ( Montañés et al., 2012 ). Of greater relevance to the workplace, when role-playing a job candidate, women who interacted with a hiring manager scripted to make benevolently sexist statements became preoccupied with thoughts about their incompetence, and consequently performed worse in the interview, compared with those in a control condition ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ). These findings suggest that benevolent sexism during the enactment of HR practices can harm women’s work-related motivation and goals, as well as their performance, which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy ( Word et al., 1974 ). In other words, the low expectations benevolent sexists have of women can be confirmed by women as they are undermined by paternalistic messages.

Ambivalent sexism can operate to harm women’s access to jobs, opportunities for development, ratings of performance, and lead to stigmatization. However, hostile and benevolent sexism operate in different ways. Hostile sexism has direct negative consequences for women’s access to high status, male-typed jobs ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ; Salvaggio et al., 2009 ), and it is related to higher rates of sexual harassment ( Fitzgerald et al., 1995b ; Mitchell et al., 2004 ; Russell and Trigg, 2004 ), which negatively affect women’s health, well-being, and workplace withdrawal behaviors ( Willness et al., 2007 ). In contrast, benevolent sexism has indirect negative consequences for women’s careers, for instance, in preventing access to challenging tasks ( King et al., 2012 ) and critical developmental feedback ( Vescio et al., 2005 ). Interestingly, exposure to benevolent sexism results in worsened motivation and cognitive performance, compared with exposure to hostile sexism ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ; Montañés et al., 2012 ). This is because women more easily recognize hostile sexism as a form of discrimination and inequality, compared with benevolent sexism, which can be more subtle in nature ( Dardenne et al., 2007 ). Thus, women can externalize hostile sexism and mobilize against it, but the subtle nature of benevolent sexism prevents these processes ( Kay et al., 2005 ; Becker and Wright, 2011 ). Therefore, hostile and benevolent sexism lead to different but harmful forms of HR discrimination. Future research should more closely examine their potentially different consequences.

Thus far, we have articulated how gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices can affect discrimination in HR policy and in HR-related decision-making and enactment. Furthermore, we have argued that organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism are critical factors leading to personal discrimination in HR-related decision-making and enactment, albeit in different forms. We now turn to an integration of these two phenomena.

The Effect of Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices on Organizational Decision Makers’ Levels of Hostile and Benevolent Sexism

Organizational decision makers’ beliefs about men and women should be affected by the work environments in which they are embedded. Thus, when there are more gender inequalities within organizational structures, processes, and practices, organizational decision makers should have higher levels of hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Two inter-related processes can account for this proposition: the establishment of who becomes and remains an organizational member, and the socialization of organizational members.

First, as organizations develop over time, forces work to attract, select, and retain an increasingly homogenous set of employees in terms of their hostile and benevolent sexism ( Schneider, 1983 , 1987 ). In support of this perspective, an individual’s values tend to be congruent with the values in his or her work environment (e.g., Holland, 1996 ; Kristof-Brown et al., 2005 ). People are attracted to and choose to work for organizations that have characteristics similar to their own, and organizations select individuals who are likely to fit with the organization. Thus, more sexist individuals are more likely to be attracted to organizations with greater gender inequality in leadership, structure, strategy, culture, climate, and HR policy; and they will be seen as a better fit during recruitment and selection. Finally, individuals who do not fit with the organization tend to leave voluntarily through the process of attrition. Thus, less (vs. more) sexist individuals would be more likely to leave a workplace with marked gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices. The opposite should be true for organizations with high gender equality. Through attraction, selection, and attrition processes it is likely that organizational members will become more sexist in a highly gender unequal organization and less sexist in a highly gender equal organization.

Second, socialization processes can change organizational members’ personal attributes, goals, and values to match those of the organization ( Ostroff and Rothausen, 1997 ). Organizational members’ receive both formal and informal messages about gender inequality—or equality—within an organization through their orientation and training, reading of organizational policy, perceptions of who rises in the ranks, how women (vs. men) are treated within the organization, as well as their perception of climates for diversity and sexual harassment. Socialization of organizational members over time has been shown to result in organizational members’ values and personalities changing to better match the values of the organization ( Kohn and Schooler, 1982 ; Cable and Parsons, 2001 ).

These socialization processes can operate to change organizational members’ levels of sexism. It is likely that within more sexist workplaces, people’s levels of hostile and benevolent sexism increase because their normative beliefs shift due to exposure to institutional discrimination against women, others’ sexist attitudes and behavior, and gender bias in culture and climate ( Schwartz and DeKeseredy, 2000 ; Ford et al., 2008 ; Banyard et al., 2009 ). These processes can also lead organizational decision makers to adopt less sexist attitudes in a workplace context marked by greater gender equality. Thus, organizational members’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism can be shaped by the degree of gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices and by the sexism levels of their work colleagues.

In addition, organizational decision makers can be socialized to act in discriminatory ways without personally becoming more sexist. If organizational decision makers witness others acting in a discriminatory manner with positive consequences, or acting in an egalitarian way with negative consequences, they can learn to become more discriminatory in their HR practices through observational learning ( Bandura, 1977 , 1986 ). So, organizational decision makers could engage in personal discrimination without being sexist if they perceive that the fair treatment of women in HR would encounter resistance given the broader organizational structures, processes, and practices promoting gender inequality. Yet over time, given cognitive dissonance ( Festinger, 1962 ), it is likely that discriminatory behavior could induce attitude change among organizational decision makers to become more sexist.

Thus far we have argued that gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices, organizational decision makers’ sexist attitudes, and gender discrimination in HR practices can have reciprocal, reinforcing relationships. Thus, it may appear that we have created a model that is closed and determinate in nature; however, this would be a misinterpretation. In the following section, we outline how organizations marked by gender inequalities can reduce discrimination against women.

How to Reduce Gender Discrimination in Organizations

The model we present for understanding gender discrimination in HR practices is complex. We believe that such complexity is necessary to accurately reflect the realities of organizational life. The model demonstrates that many sources of gender inequality are inter-related and have reciprocal effects. By implication, there are no simple or direct solutions to reduce gender discrimination in organizations. Rather, this complex problem requires multiple solutions. In fact, as discussed by Gelfand et al. (2007) , if an organization attempts to correct discrimination in only one aspect of organizational structure, process, or practice, and not others, such change attempts will be ineffective due to mixed messages. Therefore, we outline below how organizations can reduce gender discrimination by focusing on (a) HR policies (i.e., diversity initiatives and family friendly policies) and closely related organizational structures, processes, and practices; (b) HR-related decision-making and enactment; as well as, (c) the organizational decision makers who engage in such actions.

Reducing Gender Discrimination in HR Policy and Associated Organizational Structures, Processes, and Practices

Organizations can take steps to mitigate discrimination in HR policies. As a first example, let us consider how an organization can develop, within its HR systems, diversity initiatives aimed at changing the composition of the workforce that includes policies to recruit, retain, and develop employees from underrepresented groups ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Diversity initiatives can operate like affirmative action programs in that organizations track and monitor (a) the number of qualified candidates from different groups (e.g., women vs. men) in a pool, and (b) the number of candidates from each group hired or promoted. When the proportion of candidates from a group successfully selected varies significantly from their proportion in the qualified pool then action, such as targeted recruitment efforts, needs to be taken.

Importantly, such efforts to increase diversity can be strengthened by other HR policies that reward managers, who select more diverse personnel, with bonuses ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Organizations that incorporate diversity-based criteria into their performance and promotion policies and offer meaningful incentives to managers to identify and develop successful female candidates for promotion are more likely to succeed in retaining and promoting diverse talent ( Murphy and Cleveland, 1995 ; Cleveland et al., 2000 ). However, focusing on short-term narrowly defined criteria, such as increasing the number of women hired, without also focusing on candidates’ merit and providing an adequate climate or support for women are unlikely to bring about any long-term change in diversity, and can have detrimental consequences for its intended beneficiaries ( Heilman et al., 1992 , 1997 ). Rather, to be successful, HR policies for diversity need to be supported by the other organizational structures, processes, and practices, such as strategy, leadership, and climate.

For instance, diversity initiatives should be linked to strategies to create a business case for diversity ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). An organization with a strategy to market to more diverse populations can justify that a more diverse workforce can better serve potential clientele ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Alternatively, an organization that is attempting to innovate and grow might justify a corporate strategy to increase diversity on the grounds that diverse groups have multiple perspectives on a problem with the potential to generate more novel, creative solutions ( van Knippenberg et al., 2004 ). Furthermore, organizational leaders must convey strong support for the HR policies for them to be successful ( Rynes and Rosen, 1995 ). Given the same HR policy within an organization, leaders’ personal attitudes toward the policy affects the discrimination levels found within their unit ( Pryor, 1995 ; Pryor et al., 1995 ). Finally, diversity programs are more likely to succeed in multicultural organizations with strong climates for diversity ( Elsass and Graves, 1997 ; Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). An organization’s climate for diversity consists of employees’ shared perceptions that the organization’s structures, processes, and practices are committed to maintaining diversity and eliminating discrimination ( Nishii and Raver, 2003 ; Gelfand et al., 2007 ). In organizations where employees perceive a strong climate for diversity, diversity programs result in greater employee attraction and retention among women and minorities, at all levels of the organization ( Cox and Blake, 1991 ; Martins and Parsons, 2007 ).

As a second example of how HR policies can mitigate gender inequalities, we discuss HR policies to lessen employees’ experience of work-family conflict. Work-family conflict is a type of role conflict that workers experience when the demands (e.g., emotional, cognitive, time) of their work role interfere with the demands of their family role or vice versa ( Greenhaus and Beutell, 1985 ). Work-family conflict has the negative consequences of increasing employee stress, illness-related absence, and desire to turnover ( Grandey and Cropanzano, 1999 ). Importantly, women are more adversely affected by work-family conflict than men ( Martins et al., 2002 ). Work-family conflict can be exacerbated by HR policies that evaluate employees based on face time (i.e., number of hours present at the office), as a proxy for organizational commitment ( Perlow, 1995 ; Elsbach et al., 2010 ).

Formal family friendly HR policies can be adopted to relieve work-family conflict directly, which differentially assists women in the workplace. For instance, to reduce work-family conflict, organizations can implement HR policies such as flexible work arrangements, which involve flexible schedules, telecommuting, compressed work weeks, job-shares, and part-time work ( Galinsky et al., 2008 ). In conjunction with other family friendly policies, such as the provision of childcare, elderly care, and paid maternity leave, organizations can work to reduce stress and improve the retention of working mothers ( Burke, 2002 ).

Unfortunately, it has been found that the enactment of flexible work policies can still lead to discrimination. Organizational decision makers’ sexism can lead them to grant more flexible work arrangements to white men than to women and other minorities because white men are seen as more valuable ( Kelly and Kalev, 2006 ). To circumvent this, organizations need to formalize HR policies relating to flexible work arrangements ( Kelly and Kalev, 2006 ). For instance, formal, written policies should articulate who can adopt flexible work arrangements (e.g., employees in specific divisions or with specific job roles) and what such arrangements look like (e.g., core work from 10 am to 3 pm with flexible work hours from 7 to 10 am or from 3 to 6 pm). When the details of such policies are formally laid out, organizational decision makers have less latitude and therefore less opportunity for discrimination in granting access to these arrangements.

To be successful, family friendly HR policies should be tied to other organizational structures, processes, and practices such as organizational strategy, leadership, culture, and climate. A business case for flexible work arrangements can be made because they attract and retain top-talent, which includes women ( Baltes et al., 1999 ). Furthermore, organizational leaders must convey strong support for family friendly programs ( Jayne and Dipboye, 2004 ). Leaders can help bolster the acceptance of family friendly policies through successive interactions, communications, visibility, and role modeling with employees. For instance, a leader who sends emails at 2 o’clock in the morning is setting a different expectation of constant availability than a leader who never sends emails after 7:00 pm. Family friendly HR policies must also be supported by simultaneously changing the underlying organizational culture that promotes face time. Although it is difficult to change the culture of an organization, the leaders’ of the organization play an influential role in instilling such change because the behaviors of leaders are antecedents and triggers of organizational culture ( Kozlowski and Doherty, 1989 ; Ostroff et al., 2012 ). In summary, HR policies must be supported by other organizational structures, processes, and practices in order for these policies to be effective.

Adopting HR diversity initiative policies and family friendly policies can reduce gender discrimination and reshape the other organizational structures, processes, and practices and increase gender equality in them. Specifically, such policies, if successful, should increase the number of women in all departments and at all levels of an organization. Further, having more women in leadership positions signals to organizational members that the organization takes diversity seriously, affecting the diversity climate of the organization, and ultimately its culture ( Konrad et al., 2010 ). Thus, particular HR policies can reduce gender inequalities in all of the other organizational structures, processes, and practices.

Reducing Gender Discrimination in HR-Related Decision-Making and Enactment

A wealth of research demonstrates that an effective means of reducing personal bias by organizational decision makers in HR practices is to develop HR policies that standardize and objectify performance data (e.g., Konrad and Linnehan, 1995 ; Reskin and McBrier, 2000 ). To reduce discrimination in personnel decisions (i.e., employee hiring and promotion decisions) a job analysis should be performed to determine the appropriate knowledge skills and abilities needed for specific positions ( Fine and Cronshaw, 1999 ). This ensures that expectations about characteristics of the ideal employee for that position are based on accurate knowledge of the job and not gender stereotypes about the job ( Welle and Heilman, 2005 ). To reduce discrimination in performance evaluations, HR policies should necessitate the use of reliable measures based on explicit objective performance expectations and apply these practices consistently across all worker evaluations ( Bernardin et al., 1998 ; Ittner et al., 2003 ). Employees’ performance should be evaluated using behaviorally anchored rating scales ( Smith and Kendall, 1963 ) that allow supervisors to rate subordinates on examples of actual work behaviors. These evaluations should be done regularly, given that delays require retrieving memories of work performance and this process can be biased by gender stereotypes ( Sanchez and De La Torre, 1996 ). Finally, if greater gender differences are found on selection tests than on performance evaluations, then the use of such biased selection tests needs to be revisited ( Chung-Yan and Cronshaw, 2002 ). In summary, developing HR policies that standardize and objectify the process of employee/candidate evaluations can reduce personal bias in HR practices.

Importantly, the level of personal discrimination enacted by organizational decision makers can be reduced by formalizing HR policies, and by controlling the situations under which HR-related decisions are made. We have articulated how HR-related decisions involve social cognition and are therefore susceptible to biases introduced by the use of gender stereotypes. This can occur unwittingly by those who perceive themselves to be unprejudiced but who are affected by stereotypes or negative automatic associations nonetheless ( Chugh, 2004 ; Son Hing et al., 2008 ). For instance, when HR policies do not rely on objective criteria, and the context for evaluation is ambiguous, organizational decision makers will draw on gender (and other) stereotypes to fill in the blanks when evaluating candidates ( Heilman, 1995 , 2001 ). Importantly, the context can be constructed in such a way as to reduce these biases. For instance, organizational decision makers will make less biased judgments of others if they have more time available to evaluate others, are less cognitively busy ( Martell, 1991 ), have higher quality of information available about candidates, and are accountable for justifying their ratings and decisions ( Kulik and Bainbridge, 2005 ; Roberson et al., 2007 ). Thus, if they have the time, motivation, and opportunity to make well-informed, more accurate judgments, then discrimination in performance ratings can be reduced.

Reducing Organizational Decision Makers’ Sexism

Another means to reduce gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and enactment is to focus directly on reducing the hostile and benevolent sexist beliefs of organizational decision makers. Interventions aimed at reducing these beliefs typically involve diversity training, such as a seminar, course, or workshop. Such training involves one or more sessions that involve interactive discussions, lectures, and practical assignments. During the training men and women are taught about sexism and how gender roles in society are socially constructed. Investigations have shown these workshop-based interventions are effective at reducing levels of hostile sexism but have inconsistent effects on benevolent sexism ( Case, 2007 ; de Lemus et al., 2014 ). The subtle, and in some ways positive nature of benevolent sexism makes it difficult to confront and reduce using such interventions. However, levels of benevolent sexism are reduced when individuals are explicitly informed about the harmful implications of benevolent sexism ( Becker and Swim, 2012 ). Unfortunately, these interventions have not been tested in organizational settings. So their efficacy in the field is unknown.

Gender inequality in organizations is a complex phenomenon that can be seen in HR practices (i.e., policies, decision-making, and their enactment) that affects the hiring, training, pay, and promotion of women. We propose that gender discrimination in HR-related decision-making and the enactment of HR practices stems from gender inequalities in broader organizational structures, processes, and practices, including HR policy but also leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and organizational climate. Moreover, reciprocal effects should occur, such that discriminatory HR practices can perpetuate gender inequalities in organizational leadership, structure, strategy, culture, and climate. Organizational decision makers also play an important role in gender discrimination. We propose that personal discrimination in HR-related decisions and enactment arises from organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism. While hostile sexism can lead to discrimination against women because of a desire to keep them from positions of power, benevolent sexism can lead to discrimination against women because of a desire to protect them. Finally, we propose that gender inequalities in organizational structures, processes, and practices affect organizational decision makers’ sexism through attraction, selection, socialization, and attrition processes. Thus, a focus on organizational structure, processes, and practices is critical.

The model we have developed extends previous work by Gelfand et al. (2007) in a number of substantive ways. Gelfand et al. (2007) proposed that aspects of the organization, that is, structure, organizational culture, leadership, strategy, HR systems, and organizational climates, are all interrelated and may contribute to or attenuate discrimination (e.g., racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia). First, we differ from their work by emphasizing that workplace discrimination is most directly attributable to HR practices. Consequently, we emphasize how inequalities in other organizational structures, processes, and practices affect institutional discrimination in HR policy. Second, our model differs from that of Gelfand et al. (2007) in that we focus on the role of organizational decision makers in the enactment of HR policy. The attitudes of these decision makers toward specific groups of employees are critical. However, the nature of prejudice differs depending on the target group ( Son Hing and Zanna, 2010 ). Therefore, we focus on one form of bias—sexism—in the workplace. Doing so, allows us to draw on more nuanced theories of prejudice, namely ambivalent sexism theory ( Glick and Fiske, 1996 ). Thus, third, our model differs from the work of Gelfand et al. (2007) by considering how dual beliefs about women (i.e., hostile and benevolent beliefs) can contribute to different forms of gender discrimination in HR practices. Fourth, we differ from Gelfand et al. (2007) by reviewing how organizational decision makers’ level of sexism within an organization is affected by organizational structures, processes, and practices via selection-attraction-attrition processes and through socialization processes.

However, the model we have developed is not meant to be exhaustive. There are multiple issues that we have not addressed but should be considered: what external factors feed into our model? What other links within the model might arise? What are the limits to its generalizability? What consequences derive from our model? How can change occur given a model that is largely recursive in nature? We focus on these issues throughout our conclusion.

In this paper, we have illustrated what we consider to be the dominant links in our model; however, additional links are possible. First, we do not lay out the factors that feed into our model, such as government regulations, the economy, their competitors, and societal culture. In future work, one could analyze the broader context that organizations operate in, which influences its structures, processes, and practices, as well as its members. For instance, in societies marked by greater gender inequalities, the levels of hostile and benevolent sexism of organizational decision makers will be higher ( Glick et al., 2000 ). Second, there is no link demonstrating how organizational decision makers who are more sexist have the capacity, even if they sit lower in the organizational hierarchy, to influence the amount of gender inequality in organizational structures, processes, and practices. It is possible for low-level managers or HR personnel who express more sexist sentiments to—through their own behavior—affect others’ perceptions of the tolerance for discrimination in the workplace ( Ford et al., 2001 ) and others’ perceptions of the competence and hireability of female job candidates ( Good and Rudman, 2010 ). Thus, organizational decision makers’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism can affect organizational climates, and potentially other organizational structures, processes, and practices. Third, it is possible that organizational structures, processes, and practices could moderate the link between organizational decision makers’ sexist attitudes and their discriminatory behavior in HR practices. The ability of people to act in line with their attitudes depends on the strength of the constraints in the social situation and the broader context ( Lewin, 1935 , 1951 ). Thus, if organizational structures, processes, and practices clearly communicate the importance of gender equality then the discriminatory behavior of sexist organizational decision makers should be constrained. Accordingly, organizations should take steps to mitigate institutional discrimination by focusing on organizational structures, processes, and practices rather than focusing solely on reducing sexism in individual employees.

Our model does not consider how women’s occupational status is affected by their preferences for gender-role-consistent careers and their childcare and family responsibilities, which perhaps should not be underestimated (e.g., Manne, 2001 ; Hakim, 2006 ; Ceci et al., 2009 ). In other words, lifestyle preferences could contribute to gender differences in the workplace. However, it is important to consider how women’s agency in choosing occupations and managing work-life demands is constrained. Gender imbalances (e.g., in pay) in the workplace (e.g., Moss-Racusin et al., 2012 ; Sheltzer and Smith, 2014 ) and gender imbalances in the home (e.g., in domestic labor, childcare; Bianchi, 2000 ; Bianchi et al., 2000 ) shape the decisions that couples (when they consist of a woman and a man) make about how to manage dual careers. For instance, research has uncovered that women with professional degrees leave the labor force at roughly three times the rate of men ( Baker, 2002 ). Women’s decisions to interrupt their careers were difficult and were based on factors, such as workplace inflexibility, and their husbands’ lack of domestic responsibilities, rather than a preference to stay at home with their children ( Stone and Lovejoy, 2004 ). Thus, both factors inside and outside the workplace constrain and shape women’s career decisions.

Our model is derived largely from research that has been conducted in male-dominated organizations; however, we speculate that it should hold for female-dominated organizations. There is evidence that tokenism does not work against men in terms of their promotion potential in female-dominated environments. Rather, there is some evidence for a glass-escalator effect for men in female-dominated fields, such as nursing, and social work ( Williams, 1992 ). In addition, regardless of the gender composition of the workplace, men are advantaged, compared with women in terms of earnings and wage growth ( Budig, 2002 ). Finally, even in female-dominated professions, segregation along gender lines occurs in organizational structure ( Snyder and Green, 2008 ). Thus, the literature suggests that our model should hold for female-dominated environments.

Some might question if our model assumes that organizational decision makers enacting HR practices are men. It does not. There is evidence that decision makers who are women also discriminate against women (e.g., the Queen Bee phenomenon; Ellemers et al., 2004 ). Further, although men are higher in hostile sexism, compared with women ( Glick et al., 1997 , 2000 ), they are not necessarily higher in benevolent sexism ( Glick et al., 2000 ). More importantly, the effects of hostile and benevolent sexism are not moderated by participant gender ( Masser and Abrams, 2004 ; Salvaggio et al., 2009 ; Good and Rudman, 2010 ). Thus, those who are higher in hostile or benevolent sexism respond in a more discriminatory manner, regardless of whether they are men or women. Thus, organizational decision makers, regardless of their sex, should discriminate more against women in HR practices when they are higher in hostile or benevolent sexism.

In future work, the consequences of our model for women discriminated against in HR practices should be considered. The negative ramifications of sexism and discrimination on women are well known: physical and psychological stress, worse physical health (e.g., high blood pressure, ulcers, anxiety, depression; Goldenhar et al., 1998 ); lower job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and attachment to work ( Murrell et al., 1995 ; Hicks-Clarke and Iles, 2000 ); lower feelings of power and prestige ( Gutek et al., 1996 ); and performance decrements through stereotype threat ( Spencer et al., 1999 ). However, how might these processes differ depending on the proximal cause of the discrimination?

Our model lays out two potential paths by which women might be discriminated against in HR practices: institutional discrimination stemming from organizational structures, processes, and practices and personal discrimination stemming from organizational decision makers’ levels of sexism. In order for the potential stressor of stigmatization to lead to psychological and physical stress it must be seen as harmful and self-relevant ( Son Hing, 2012 ). Thus, if institutional discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices are completely hidden then discrimination might not cause stress reactions associated with stigmatization because it may be too difficult for women to detect ( Crosby et al., 1986 ; Major, 1994 ), and label as discrimination ( Crosby, 1984 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ). In contrast, women should be adversely affected by stigmatization in instances where gender discrimination in organizational structures, processes, and practices is more evident. For instance, greater perceptions of discrimination are associated with lower self-esteem in longitudinal studies ( Schmitt et al., 2014 ).

It might appear that we have created a model, which is a closed system, with no opportunities to change an organization’s trajectory: more unequal organizations will become more hierarchical, and more equal organizations will become more egalitarian. We do not believe this to be true. One potential impetus for organizations to become more egalitarian may be some great shock such as sex-based discrimination lawsuits that the organization either faces directly or sees its competitors suffer. Large corporations have been forced to settle claims of gender harassment and gender discrimination with payouts upward of $21 million ( Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 2004 ; LexisNexis, 2010 ; Velez, et al. v. Novartis Pharmaceuticals Crop, et al., 2010 ). Discrimination lawsuits are time consuming and costly ( James and Wooten, 2006 ), resulting in lower shares, lower public perceptions, higher absenteeism, and higher turnover ( Wright et al., 1995 ). Expensive lawsuits experienced either directly or indirectly should act as a big driver in the need for change.

Furthermore, individual women can work to avoid stigmatization. Women in the workplace are not simply passive targets of stereotyping processes. People belonging to stigmatized groups can engage in a variety of anti-stigmatization techniques, but their response options are constrained by the cultural repertoires available to them ( Lamont and Mizrachi, 2012 ). In other words, an organization’s culture will provide its members with a collective imaginary for how to behave. For instance, it might be unimaginable for a woman to file a complaint of sexual harassment if she knows that complaints are never taken seriously. Individuals do negotiate stigmatization processes; however, this is more likely when stigmatization is perceived as illegitimate and when they have the resources to do so ( Major and Schmader, 2001 ). Thus, at an individual level, people engage in strategies to fight being discriminated against but these strategies are likely more constrained for those who are most stigmatized.

Finally, possibly the most efficacious way for organizational members (men and women) to challenge group-based inequality and to improve the status of women as a whole is to engage in collective action (e.g., participate in unions, sign petitions, organize social movements, recruit others to join a movement; Klandermans, 1997 ; Wright and Lubensky, 2009 ). People are most likely to engage in collective action when they perceive group differences as underserved or illegitimate ( Wright, 2001 ). Such a sense of relative deprivation involves feelings of injustice and anger that prompt a desire for wide scale change ( van Zomeren et al., 2008 ). Interestingly, people are more likely to experience relative deprivation when inequalities have begun to be lessened, and thus their legitimacy questioned ( Crosby, 1984 ; Kawakami and Dion, 1993 ; Stangor et al., 2003 ). If organizational leaders respond to such demands for change by altering previously gender oppressive organizational structures, processes, and practices, this can, in people’s minds, open the door for additional changes. Therefore, changes to mitigate gender inequalities within any organizational structure, policy, or practice could start a cascade of transformations leading to a more equal organization for men and women.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


This research was supported by funding from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) awarded to Leanne S. Son Hing.

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Keywords : hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, institutional discrimination, human resources practices, gender harassment, personal discrimination

Citation: Stamarski CS and Son Hing LS (2015) Gender inequalities in the workplace: the effects of organizational structures, processes, practices, and decision makers’ sexism. Front. Psychol. 6:1400. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01400

Received: 27 January 2015; Accepted: 02 September 2015; Published: 16 September 2015.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2015 Stamarski and Son Hing. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Leanne S. Son Hing, Department of Psychology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON N1G 2W1, Canada, [email protected]

† These authors have contributed equally to this work.

This article is part of the Research Topic

Institutional Determinants of Social Inequalities

The Sustainability Yearbook

Gender equality in the workplace: going beyond women on the board.

Where are we at?

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 1 , it will take another 100 years to achieve gender equality based on the current rate of progress. This prediction has been widely used as a shock therapy to push governments, NGOs, associations, investors and companies into action. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, efforts will have to be doubled if we are to avoid losing another 10 years to achieve gender equality 2 . Based on past experience, economic slowdowns not only disproportionately affect women, but also trigger gender equality topics to slip down governmental and corporate agendas. Women represent 39% of the global workforce but accounted for 54% of job losses as of May 2020 3 . Furthermore, women are over-represented in sectors which are most heavily hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality or the food services industries, further exacerbating inequalities. These inequalities also disproportionately affect certain groups of women, depending on the intersections of gender with race, ethnicity, religion, class, ability, sexuality and other identity markers. 

In 2020, the discourse has shifted significantly from a focus on gender diversity towards diversity and inclusion more generally. However, the lack of data on other diversity indicators and how they intersect with gender has made it difficult for companies and investors to measure their performance and consistently identify gaps in the domain. As a result, most large-scale corporate and financial initiatives tend to still focus on mainstream gender metrics.

Financial initiatives

Financial initiatives are worth highlighting, as they demonstrate the development and progress made towards gender equality. In 2019, total publicly available equity and fixedincome offerings in gender lens investing reached over USD 2.4 billion in asset-undermanagement 4 . The push to integrate gender diversity in investment criteria has increased over the years: at least 15 new publicly traded gender lens equity funds have been launched since 2015. In 2017, Morgan Stanley encouraged analysts to include gender scores in their investments, while in 2018 the State Street Global Advisors announced that it would vote against all-male boards in the US, UK and Australia as of 2020. In 2018, BlackRock announced that it expected the companies it invested in to have at least two women on the board and urged the Russell 1000 companies with fewer than that to act on their lack of diversity. This had a direct effect, as the number of companies with fewer than two women on the board dropped by 14% within five months 5 . In November 2019, Fox Gestion d’Actifs, a subsidiary of Groupe Premium, launched its Valeurs Feminines Global Fund, which invests only in publicly-listed companies whose CEOs are women 6 . Although this criterion poses obvious challenges, as for example in 2020 women made up nearly half of the employees of S&P 500 companies but only 6% of their CEOs 7 , it is the first such fund and makes a strong case for more venture capital investment in women entrepreneurs. 

The outlook for gender lens investing is geared to move beyond its current focus on large-cap companies and developed markets, to also set expectations on smallcap companies and in developing markets 8 . For example, a report published in 2019 looking into 61 companies listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange found that 12% of these companies had women CEO’s, compared to only 7% of FTSE 100 companies and 7% of Fortune 500 companies9. Including these companies in gender lens investing would therefore be an interesting perspective for the development of these funds.

Women on the board

Considerable attention has been directed towards the number of women at board level, and to a lesser extent, in executive positions. This has led to positive developments, as we see that the percentage of women on boards has increased across all regions over recent years. The following flow charts show the proportion of companies according to the percentage of women on their board, and how the trend evolves over time. Each flow represents the percentage of assessed companies which moved between brackets from one year to the next.

What caused this increase in the percentage of women on the board, and how can it drive change within corporations more broadly? The first part of this article ‘More women on boards, so what?’ will explore some of the trends and rationales around focusing on women on the board. The second part ‘Moving up the ladder’ will investigate the trends which mark other diversity indicators, namely the percentage of women at different levels of responsibility and equal remuneration. The third part ‘Care responsibilities in times of a pandemic’ will then focus on the importance of family-care policies, which can remove some of the barriers women face in their career development.

Methodology: Every year, the largest 3,500 companies in the world are invited to participate in the Corporate Sustainability Assessment, for potential inclusion in the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices. The graphs in this article present the data collected through the assessment of these companies over the years.

Proportion of companies according to the percentage of women on their board

Proportion of companies according to the percentage of women on their board

Methodology: Our universe of assessed companies in Africa is almost exclusively composed of South African companies, which is why we single out South Africa when analysing regional trends. 

Women on boards: bound to increase?

Regulatory frameworks

Regulatory frameworks have been a driving force towards increasing gender diversity within companies. The European Union has been the most proactive in this domain, issuing a proposal for a directive on improving the gender balance on corporate boards as early as 2012 10 . As a result, six EU member-states have adopted binding quotas for gender board diversity: Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Germany, Austria and France. Another nine states have resorted to soft and non-binding quotas: Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland, Slovenia and Sweden. The UK has also put in place soft quotas. Greece, which up until then had a soft quota in place, announced the adoption of a 25% binding quota for the end of 2020. Beyond Europe, India issued the Companies Bill in 2013 which requires public companies to have at least one woman director. Malaysia adopted a policy in 2011 for companies with more than 250 employees to have boards that are at least 30% women by 2016. Brazil is still looking into a quota for state and mixed-cap companies, which would require them to have boards that are at least 30% women by 2022. In the US, California adopted quotas in 2018 for publicly traded companies, to be reached by 2019 or 2021 depending on the size of the board. Other countries have also adopted binding and non-binding quotas, as summarised in the table below:

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

When analyzing the performance of companies across different countries within the Corporate Sustainability Assessment, we see that the countries with soft and binding quotas have performed better in terms of board gender diversity than those which have not adopted any quotas. Indeed, European companies headquartered in countries with regulations or recommendations on the number of women on the board mostly had an average percentage of women on the board which was higher than the regional average. 

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

The same observation can be made in the Asia-Pacific region, where companies based in countries with regulations or recommendations in place performed better than their regional peers and than the regional average in terms of board gender diversity

Asia-Pacific: % of women on the board

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

We see fewer countries outside of Europe and Asia-Pacific adopting binding or non-binding quotas. Although we observe a general global increase of the percentage of women in boardrooms, Latin America stands out as falling behind. 

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Latin America: % of women on the board

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Why focus on women on the board?

The number of women on the board is an easily measurable gender performance indicator, which explains why this is a focal area. Furthermore, it is expected that having more women on the board will have trickle-down effects on the rest of the workforce. For example, it could break down stereotypes on women in leadership and encourage women to pursue their careers further, to seek for roles which they would have not otherwise considered and to ask for more raises and promotions 11 . Having more diversity on the board can break down gender barriers by broadening women’s “professional imagination”, providing them with role models and increasing their capacity to project themselves into leadership roles. Higher numbers of women on boards can therefore instigate cultural change and has a strong symbolic meaning, showing that women can be leaders 12 . 

Having more women on the board is also financially material. The McKinsey & Company Diversity Wins Report 2020 13 found that “companies whose boards are in the top quartile of gender diversity are 28 percent more likely than their peers to outperform financially” and the correlations are statistically significant. This might be linked to the fact that more companies have appointed women directors and there is an overall rise in the universe of companies included in the study, making it more likely to find statistically significant correlations. However, more research has been conducted showing that gender diversity in the boardroom matters because it brings a broader collection of experience, viewpoints and backgrounds which result in better decision-making 14 . Having more women on the board also tends to curb excessive risktaking, decrease aggressive tax strategies and improve firm reputation, earnings quality and sustainability performance. These outcomes are not negligible for companies and their shareholders, especially in times of a global pandemic which will require companies to differentiate themselves from their industry peers.  

The benefits of diversity apply not only at board level but throughout companies more broadly, and the question has therefore been raised whether better representation at board level improves overall diversity metrics of a company.

The impact on other diversity indicators

The development of women’s “professional imagination”, i.e. their career expectations and aspirations, within companies with more women on the board is difficult to measure and grasp through quantitative metrics, at least in the short term. Furthermore, the expected improvement in diversity metrics such as the percentage of women in leadership and management roles and the pay ratios has not translated into the data. Indeed, based on the analysis conducted on the data disclosed by companies within the Corporate Sustainability Assessment, the correlation between women on the board and other diversity indicators is low. 

Companies with more women on the board have a slightly higher proportion of women on average at different levels of responsibility. However, it is unclear whether greater board diversity drives this trend or whether companies with a more diverse workforce appoint more women directors. These companies might be more aware of diversity and gender equality issues, or simply have more women in their talent pool who can be appointed as directors. It is therefore unsurprising that companies with more women in the workforce tend to have more women on the board, and as the correlation is not statistically significant, it is difficult to make a strong statement about the relationship between both indicators.

Women on board trend and percentage of women by level for year 2020

Women on board trend and percentage of women by level for year 2020

The correlation between women on the board and equal remuneration ratios is even less pronounced. The data collected in 2020 does not show a significant relationship between having more women on the board and improved equal remuneration ratios, and the same analysis over the years did not suggest any strong correlation between these indicators either.

Women on board trend and pay ratio for year 2020

Women on board trend and pay ratio for year 2020

Why don’t the benefits trickle down?

Simply focusing on appointing more women on the board is not enough to achieve gender equality across companies. But why? Several factors are of relevance.

Therefore, we cannot rely solely on the percentage of women on the board to measure a company’s gender equality performance. Looking at the broader representation of women within a company can provide us with an opportunity to identify gaps in a more meaningful way.

Moving up the ladder

How many steps left.

While the percentage of women on the board has improved over the years in both developed and emerging markets, it stays significantly below the percentage of women in the total workforce, showing that women remain underrepresented in the boardroom. The percentage of women in the total workforce in developed and emerging markets has stayed relatively stable, averaging around 35% over the past five years. However, the proportion of women decreases as we move up the corporate ladder. Interestingly, in developed markets the percentage of women in senior management is even lower than the percentage of women on the board. This might hint to the fact that board quotas, mostly implemented in developed markets, have pushed companies to take action on their gender board representation faster than they have taken action on the representation of women within leadership positions across the company. 

% of women at different levels of responsibility in developed and emerging markets

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

This suggests that companies will have to make more significant efforts to increase the representation of women, as the approaches taken so far have not led to notable developments over the years. EDGE Certification, the leading global assessment and business certification for gender equality, with which S&P Global has been collaborating over the years, determines 30% as the critical threshold for a group to achieve substantive representation. Companies will therefore have to adopt targeted strategies to build a more solid bridge between junior and senior management roles. Investors will also play a role in this transition and can influence this development by moving beyond the board of directors to also focus on the percentage of women in leadership positions.

Increasing the number of women in leadership positions is important for board diversity because it broadens the talent pool for board nominations, and ensures that the women appointed have the experience, skills and legitimacy required, which as mentioned earlier are essential to have a meaningful say in the decision-making process. Having more women in executives positions will therefore make it easier for companies to appoint women directors with the adequate skill set and this could in turn increase these directors’ influence on the overall decision-making process, potentially improving the trickle-down effects on other women in the workforce.

Industry perspective 

Taking an industry-specific approach helps us to identify which sectors are leading positive trends and which ones are lagging behind. As expected, more client-facing industries tend to have better representation of women in their workforce and at junior management level. The trends for both indicators have however stayed alarmingly stable over the past 5 years, and the 11 industry groups mostly divide into three brackets: 20-25%, 30-35% and 40-50%. The best performers are the financials, healthcare and real estate sectors, while the laggards lie in the information technology, industrials, utilities, energy and material sectors. 

Share of women in the total workforce per industry

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Share of women in junior management positions per industry

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Share of women in senior management per industry

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Share of women on the board per industry

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Methodology: The list of sub-industries included in every GICS sector is available at https://www.spglobal.com/spdji/en/documents/methodologies/methodology-gics.pdf

While there is some degree of comparability between the percentages of women in the workforce and in junior management roles, the share of women in senior management positions drops significantly across industries. Nonetheless, the percentage of women in senior management positions has improved over the past few years. This improvement has been slow, with setbacks along the way, but considering that it takes time to build up the skills and experience and to fight through several layers of bias, this trend is encouraging. 

Looking at the trends by industry group, we see that although improving, some sectors are still far from reaching the 30% threshold, and at this rate of progress, will take many more years to get there. This is for example the case for the Information Technology industry, which has gone from 14% to 17% of women in senior management roles between 2016 and 2020. In this context, the 2020-2025 EU Gender Equality Strategy’s focus on gender issues in artificial intelligence and in the digital transition is extremely important to ensure that women will play a meaningful role in building and shaping the digital world of tomorrow 19 . As digitalisation will increasingly change our lives and that of future generations, companies and governments have the responsibility to ensure that all genders, combined with other identity markers such as race, age, ability, religion, sexuality, are represented in these developments. 

How can companies ensure that they retain their women talent and close this gap between the proportion of women in junior management and in senior management? Family-care policies are one avenue to explore, as we know that women tend to take on more responsibility and workload in their private lives. This creates considerable challenges for their career development, when it does not lead them to drop out of the workforce completely. Therefore, companies need to focus on improving their work-life balance policies to ensure gender equality in the workplace. This is especially the case in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has greatly impacted women in the workforce. 

Care responsibilities in times of a pandemic 

To understand women’s advancement in the workforce, it is also necessary to consider flexible working policies and the impact they have on women employees in particular. That is especially true now, as the coronavirus crisis has caused a clash of professional and personal responsibilities, reshaping work and home life worldwide. Women still bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities and home care duties in much of the world. “Gender stereotypes that emphasize the role of women as the main caregivers and that of men as the main breadwinners remain deeply ingrained in some regions,” the International Labour Organization’s World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2020 report found 20 . 

Working women facing a crisis

During the pandemic, those responsibilities in the home have only grown. Many employees transitioned to working from home full- or part-time. Daycare facilities and nursing homes closed and schooling moved online in many parts of the world, leaving many caregivers with fewer support options during the traditional workday. In a survey of U.S. parents and family caregivers that S&P Global conducted in partnership with AARP 21 , more than half of respondents said they are spending more hours at home taking care of children or caring for adults since the pandemic began. 

Unsurprisingly, many parents and family caregivers are experiencing significant increases in stress with the changing work conditions and increased duties in the home. Since their commitments have grown, more than 30% of family caregivers in the S&P/ AARP survey said they were experiencing a strong increase in stress due to the pandemic’s implications for their work-life responsibilities. Nearly 43% of all respondents reported a moderate increase in stress. The threat of burnout is real and could have dire consequences for women’s advancement in the workforce in particular. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study 22 found that more than one in four women are considering stepping back in their careers or leaving the workforce entirely — a situation that McKinsey called “an emergency for corporate America.” Many of those women are mothers who cite childcare responsibilities as a primary reason for considering downshifting or leaving the workforce. Some companies have responded to the stresses of the pandemic by providing flexible work arrangements, recognizing that a number of employees have found themselves balancing work with childcare or care for a loved one during the crisis. Close to 37% of respondents to the S&P Global/AARP survey said their companies have added flexible work hours to their policies since the pandemic began. In some instances, employers have moved quickly to adapt their policies for working parents. Tech giant Microsoft 23 , for example, recently began offering a new “pandemic school closure” and childcare leave benefit that gives parents as many as 12 weeks of paid leave to care for their children at home. Other firms have provided employees with ad-hoc days off to allow them to recharge.

Women on the board and well-being policies

Globally, CSA data shows a positive correlation between women being represented on the board and the existence of work-from-home options and flexible working arrangements. Only a third of companies with a low representation of women on the board — defined here as less than 30% — offer work-from-home options. But nearly half of companies with more than 30% of women on the board offer some form of remote-work option. 

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

Similarly, companies with greater gender board diversity appear more likely to offer flexible working arrangements. Just 39% of companies with low proportions of women on the board offer flexible working arrangements, compared to 51% of companies with high proportions of women on the board. According to another analysis also integrating data from Equileap, a provider of gender-equality data and insights, greater representation of women on the board and in executive positions tends to be associated with flexible hours offered to employees.

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

The benefits of flexibility

Flexibility can be an effective tool in recruiting and retaining women. S&P Global and AARP analyzed data from Equileap and found that 319 companies of the 1,389 in its sample offer flexible hours and ensure equal recruitment policies. Companies with equal recruitment strategies commit to ensure non-discrimination against any type of demographic group and equal opportunities to ensure gender parity. The research found that companies with equal recruitment policies and flexible hours tend to recruit more women.

Flexible work arrangements also appear to help with retention of employees. The research found that companies that offer flexible hours tend to see lower voluntary and total turnover rates, and the correlation was statistically significant. Turnover is also lower when companies have flexible location options, according to our analysis of data from Equileap and S&P Global’s CSA, and the correlation was statistically significant.  

Women are more likely to use flexible work arrangements and in particular part-time work to balance their work and family commitments, according to an October 2020 report on flexible working from Gapsquare 24 , a research firm that uses equality and diversity data to analyze pay disparities. Gapquare’s research found that in the face of COVID-19, flexible working is now seen as “essential for any employee, instead of inherently gendered.” 

However, “this does not mean that the gender aspect has been erased — mothers spend more time on domestic responsibilities than fathers during the lockdown,” GapSquare wrote. Still, the firm suggested the pandemic could mark the beginning of “real, long-term change.” If men were able to and made use of flexible hours and locations policies to take on more domestic and care responsibilities, women in the workforce would benefit greatly.

Long-term impacts of the pandemic

While the pandemic has greatly accelerated the discussion around more family-friendly policies, fears that current conditions will become permanent and significantly set back women’s participation and advancement in the workforce are crystalizing. The pandemic has increased the time required to meet family responsibilities and has brought more stress for many workers. As the investor community puts increasing emphasis on sustainability issues in general and treatment of employees in particular, companies cannot afford to ignore this issue.

The gender pay gap could also contribute to pushing women out of the workforce amid the pandemic. In the U.S., for example, American women earned about 81% of what men earned in 2018, according to the country’s Bureau of Labor Statistics 25 . “Because there is a gender pay gap, so often in a couple situation, the one with the higher-paying job is going to stay working. And it’s the women that are going to pull back, go to part-time, or stop working completely,” according to Natasha Lamb, Managing Partner and Director of Equity Research & Shareholder Engagement at Arjuna Capital, a sustainableinvestment firm she co-owns. When asked in an interview with S&P Global 26 how the pandemic will affect women’s advancement in the workforce and progress toward closing the gender pay gap, she was blunt: “I think it’s going to be a disaster.” Taking this risk into account, companies can decide to act now in order to decrease the probability and adverse effects of losing their women talent.  

In combination with family friendly policies, other practices can have a great impact on a company’s gender balance. Proactive management of pay equity, including conducting regular gender pay gap assessments, systematically eliminating identified gender pay gaps and communicating on these practices are key steps towards gender equality. Creating gender diverse recruitment teams and ensuring diverse candidate pools, as well as setting targets and objectives for the gender composition of management levels, are further practices that companies should adopt in order to improve their gender equality performance and counteract the potential setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Where are we going?

A key take-away from this article is that while increasing the proportion of women on the board is important, further steps are needed to improve gender equality in the workforce. Companies need to hire and promote more women into senior management positions. This presents opportunities for companies to access new talent pools and increase innovation and efficiency, as we know that diverse teams perform better. Having more women in senior management will in turn ensure that they have the adequate skill sets and required experience to be appointed as board members, enabling companies to reach their quotas and align with the increasing number of regulations around the percentage of women on corporate boards. Investing in women talent early on therefore diminishes regulatory risks down the line. Having more women in leadership will also diminish the biases and negative stereotypes around women’s ability to lead, hopefully addressing issues around unequal pay and gender pay gaps. Considering the growing regulatory frameworks and transparency expectations around remuneration practices, companies tackling these issues now will profit from lower compliance costs in the future. Furthermore, fair representation and compensation practices lead to better employee engagement, talent attraction and retention, and efficiency. The operational opportunities of gender equality in the workforce will therefore enable companies to differentiate themselves from their peers in a competitive environment. 

Shareholders have their role to play in this shift, as they can push companies to adopt better practices and improve their performance in terms of gender equality. They can act faster than governments by imposing their own quotas. This does not only ensure that their investment practices align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal number 5 on gender equality, but also increases their opportunities for better returns, as gender-equal companies face lower regulatory and operational risks. Drawing from this research, investors can now adjust their focus to reflect the importance of diversity indicators beyond the percentage of women on the board. 

Diversity also needs to expand its scope to move away from addressing women as one group and to instead recognise the heterogeneity of women’s experiences in the workplace. More efforts need to be made to collect data on indicators such as race, ethnicity, caste, religion, disability, sexual orientation and other identity markers, in order to address the further inequalities that some women experience according to their intersecting identities. Eventually, the discourse should also shift to recognise women for their abilities, experience and skills rather than branding them as diversity trophies. Companies and investors can help the world to wake up to the possibility that women deserve a say in the decisionmaking process as legitimate leaders and fully-entitled human beings.

1 World Economic Forum (2020), Global Gender Gap Report 2020. 2 Taub, A. (26 September 2020) Pandemic Will ‘Take Our Women 10 Years Back’ in the Workplace. The New York Times. 3 Mahajan, D.; White, O.; Madgavkar, A. & Krishnan, M. (16 September 2020) Don’t Let the Pandemic Set Back Gender Equality. Harvard Business Review. 4 Smucker, M. (24 June 2019) How Are Gender Lens Funds Performing? CFA Institute. 5 White, L. & Dholakia, G. (17 September 2018). Ranks of US gender-diverse boards grow, but less than 25% of directors are women. S&P Global. 6 Lemosof, M. (29 November 2019). La Fox lance le fonds Valeurs Féminines Global. Gestion de Fortunes. 7 Catalyst (15 January 2020). Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies. 8 Smucker, M. (26 May 2020). Gender Lens Investing: Where to from Here? CFA Institute. 9 Equileap (2019). Gender Equality in Kenya: Assessing 60 leading companies on workplace equality. 10 European Commission (2020). A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. 11 Deloitte (2019). Data-driven change: Women in the boardroom – A global perspective. Global Center for Corporate Governance, 6th Edition. 12 Kowalewska, H. (2020) Bringing Women on Board: The Social Policy Implications of Gender Diversity in Top Jobs. Journal of Social Policy, 49 (4). 13 McKinsey & Company (2020). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. 14 Zukis, B. (30 June 2020) How Women Will Save The Future, One Corporate Board At A Time. Forbes 15 Smith, N. (2018) Gender quotas on boards of directors. IZA World of Labor. 16 Kowalewska, H. (2020) Bringing Women on Board: The Social Policy Implications of Gender Diversity in Top Jobs. Journal of Social Policy, 49 (4). 17 McKinsey & Company (2017). Women Matter: Time to accelerate. Ten years of insight into gender diversity. 18 Adams, R. B. (2015) Myths and Facts about Female Directors. IFC Corporate Governance Knowledge Publication 37 19 European Commission (2020). A Union of Equality: Gender Equality Strategy 2020- 2025. 20 International Labour Organization (2020). World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2020.. 21 Stovall, N.; Nematzadeh, A.; White, L. & Skufca, L. (2020). Something’s Gotta Give: COVID-19 Could Rapidly Expand FamilyLeave Policies; It Could Also Deal A Serious Blow To Women In The Workforce. S&P Global. 22 McKinsey & Company (2020). Women in the Workplace 2020. 23 Stovall, N.; Nematzadeh, A.; White, L. & Skufca, L. (2020). Something’s Gotta Give: COVID-19 Could Rapidly Expand FamilyLeave Policies; It Could Also Deal A Serious Blow To Women In The Workforce. S&P Global. 24 Gapsquare (2020). Report not publicly available. 25 TED: The Economics Daily (22 March 2019). Women’s had higher median earnings than men in relatively few occupations in 2018. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 26 Stovall, N.; Nematzadeh, A.; White, L. & Skufca, L. (2020). Something’s Gotta Give: COVID-19 Could Rapidly Expand FamilyLeave Policies; It Could Also Deal A Serious Blow To Women In The Workforce. S&P Global.

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Women in the Workplace 2022

research paper on gender equality in the workplace

This is the eighth year of the Women in the Workplace report. Conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org , this effort is the largest study of women in corporate America. This year, we collected information from 333 participating organizations employing more than 12 million people, surveyed more than 40,000 employees, and conducted interviews with women of diverse identities—including women of color, 1 1. Women of color include Black, Latina, Asian, Native American/American Indian/Indigenous or Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, or mixed-race women. LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities—to get an intersectional look at biases and barriers.

About the authors

This research revealed that we’re amid a “Great Breakup.” Women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it. Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rates we’ve ever seen—and at higher rates than men in leadership. That could have serious implications for companies. Women are already significantly underrepresented in leadership. For years, fewer women have risen through the ranks because of the “broken rung” at the first step up to management. Now, companies are struggling to hold onto the relatively few women leaders they have. And all of these dynamics are even more pronounced for women of color.

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The reasons women leaders are stepping away from their companies are telling. Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but at many companies, they face headwinds that signal it will be harder to advance. They’re more likely to experience belittling microaggressions, such as having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. They’re doing more to support employee well-being and foster inclusion, but this critical work is spreading them thin and going mostly unrewarded. And finally, it’s increasingly important to women leaders that they work for companies that prioritize flexibility, employee well-being, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

If companies don’t take action, they risk losing not only their current women leaders but also the next generation of women leaders. Young women are even more ambitious and place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.

The rest of this article summarizes the main findings from the Women in the Workplace 2022 report.

The state of the pipeline

Despite modest gains in representation over the last eight years, women—and especially women of color—are still dramatically underrepresented in corporate America. And this is especially true in senior leadership: only one in four C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 20 is a woman of color (Exhibit 1).

Moreover, most companies are grappling with two pipeline problems that make achieving gender equality in their organizations all but impossible:

1. The ‘broken rung’ remains unfixed. For the eighth consecutive year, a broken rung at the first step up to manager is holding women back. For every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted (Exhibit 2). As a result, men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, and women can never catch up. There are simply too few women to promote to senior leadership positions.

2. More women leaders are leaving their companies. Now companies have a new pipeline problem. Women leaders are leaving their companies at the highest rate we’ve ever seen—and at a much higher rate than men leaders. To put the scale of the problem in perspective: for every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company (Exhibit 3).

Why women leaders are switching jobs

Women leaders are demanding more from their companies, and they’re increasingly willing to switch jobs to get it. Three primary factors are driving their decisions to leave:

1. Women leaders want to advance, but they face stronger headwinds than men. Women leaders are as likely as men at their level to want to be promoted and aspire to senior-level roles. In many companies, however, they experience microaggressions that undermine their authority and signal that it will be harder for them to advance. For example, they are far more likely than men in leadership to have colleagues imply that they aren’t qualified for their jobs. And women leaders are twice as likely as men leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior. Women leaders are also more likely to report that personal characteristics, such as their gender or being a parent, have played a role in them being denied or passed over for a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.

“I’ve asked many times what I can do to get promoted, and I don’t get a good answer. I’m thinking of leaving. And it will be my company’s loss since they didn’t offer me the opportunity to advance. I hit a ceiling that didn’t need to be there.”
—South Asian woman, senior manager

Silhouette of a woman walking away into the light down an office hallway

2. Women leaders are overworked and underrecognized. Compared with men at their level, women leaders do more to support employee well-being and foster DEI—work that dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction but is not formally rewarded in most companies. Indeed, 40 percent of women leaders say their DEI work isn’t acknowledged at all in performance reviews. Spending time and energy on work that isn’t recognized could make it harder for women leaders to advance. It also means that women leaders are stretched thinner than men in leadership; not surprisingly, 43 percent of women leaders are burned out, compared with only 31 percent of men at their level.

3. Women leaders are seeking a different culture of work. Women leaders are significantly more likely than men leaders to leave their jobs because they want more flexibility or because they want to work for a company that is more committed to employee well-being and DEI. And over the last two years, these factors have only become more important to women leaders: they are more than 1.5 times as likely as men at their level to have left a previous job because they wanted to work for a company that was more committed to DEI.

The factors that prompt current women leaders to leave their companies are even more important to the next generation of women leaders. Young women care deeply about the opportunity to advance—more than two-thirds of women under 30 want to be senior leaders. Young women are also more likely than current women leaders to say they’re increasingly prioritizing flexibility and company commitment to well-being and DEI (Exhibit 4). Companies that don’t take action may struggle to recruit and retain the next generation of women leaders.

An intersectional look at women’s experiences

Many women experience bias not only because of their gender but also because of their race, sexual orientation, a disability, or other aspects of their identity—and the compounded discrimination can be much greater than the sum of its parts. As a result, these groups of women often experience more microaggressions and face more barriers to advancement. Notably, women of color are more ambitious despite getting less support: 41 percent of women of color want to be top executives, compared with 27 percent of White women. It’s critical that companies and coworkers are aware of these dynamics, so they can more effectively promote equity and inclusion for all women. Although no study can fully capture the experiences of women with traditionally marginalized identities, this year’s findings point to these distinct experiences:

“As I was progressing through my career, people kept telling me I needed to have ‘executive presence.’ And what they really meant was I needed to look the part. I needed to have the right clothing; I needed to look feminine enough. That was always a challenge for me because I didn’t follow the typical feminine dress code.”
—White LGBTQ+ woman, senior manager

Woman in denim shirt, cropped with her mostly off to the side of the image, with laptop and smartphone, writing in a notebook at a wooden table

The importance of flexible and remote work

Two years after the pandemic forced corporate America into a massive experiment with flexible work, enthusiasm for flexibility in all its forms is higher than ever. A vast majority of employees want to work for companies that offer remote- or hybrid-work options. Only 7 percent of companies plan to pull back on remote and hybrid work in the next year, and 32 percent say these options are likely to expand.

Choice is critical. Women employees who can choose to work in the arrangement they prefer—whether remote or on-site—are less burned out, happier in their jobs, and much less likely to consider leaving their companies (Exhibit 5). This points to the importance of giving employees as much agency and choice when possible; a “one size fits all” approach to flexible work won’t work for all employees.

The option to work remotely is especially important to women. Only one in ten women wants to work mostly on-site, and many women point to remote- and hybrid-work options as one of their top reasons for joining or staying with an organization. These preferences are about more than flexibility. When women work remotely at least some of the time, they experience fewer microaggressions and higher levels of psychological safety. The decrease in microaggressions is especially pronounced for women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities—groups who typically face more demeaning and othering behavior (see sidebar, “Remote-work options are especially critical for women with disabilities”).

Remote-work options are especially critical for women with disabilities

The shift toward remote and hybrid work has been particularly beneficial for women with disabilities. Working at home can help women with disabilities be healthier and more productive since it’s easier to manage mobility issues, chronic pain, and mental-health conditions when you have more control over your work environment.

Women with disabilities also feel more respected and supported when they have the option to work remotely. They are less likely to experience certain microaggressions, such as hearing negative comments about their appearance or having colleagues openly question their qualifications. They are also more likely to say their manager trusts them to get their work done and that they feel comfortable talking openly with colleagues about their challenges.

Disabilities may or may not be readily apparent in day-to-day interactions and can include a wide range of conditions—such as physical disabilities, mental illness, neurodivergence, developmental disorders, and chronic health conditions—that interfere with daily life.

Although remote and hybrid work are delivering real benefits, they may also be creating new challenges. Many employees—and especially women employees—are seeing important benefits from remote and hybrid work. Companies that offer flexible work options have also been able to diversify their talent pipelines; 71 percent of HR leaders say remote work has helped their organizations hire and retain more employees from diverse backgrounds. However, a majority of companies are concerned that employees who work remotely feel less connected to their teams and say that remote and hybrid work are placing additional demands on managers. It’s also possible that employees who work primarily from home—who are more likely to be women—will get fewer opportunities for recognition and advancement.

Remote and hybrid work can offer a reprieve from bias, but it’s not a substitute for systemic change. On one hand, it’s positive that women who work remotely are experiencing fewer microaggressions. On the other hand, it’s deeply problematic. Regardless of where they work, all women deserve to feel valued and included. Companies cannot rely on remote and hybrid work as a solution; they need to invest in creating a truly inclusive culture.

As companies continue to navigate this transition, there are three key things they should consider.

“I don’t think I could work full time if I were required to be in the office. I think it literally is that life-changing to be remote for me.”
—White woman with physical disabilities, entry-level role

Close-up of female hands working on laptop at home at night

Five steps companies can take to navigate the shift to remote and hybrid work

It’s not enough to tweak old policies and practices; companies that are transitioning to remote and hybrid work need to fundamentally rethink how work is done. To start, companies would be well served to focus their efforts in five areas:

1. Clearly communicate plans and guidelines for flexible work. As remote- and hybrid-work policies continue to evolve, it’s important for companies to share guidelines about who can work remotely and why so people don’t feel they’re being treated unfairly. It’s also important that companies provide clear guidelines to help employees navigate the day-to-day complexities of remote and hybrid work—for example, by establishing specific windows during which meetings can be scheduled and employees in different time zones are expected to be available.

2. Gather regular feedback from employees. Only about half of companies have surveyed employees on their preferences for remote and hybrid work over the past year. As companies roll out new remote- and hybrid-work norms, they will want to keep a regular pulse on what’s working for employees and what needs to be improved.

3. Invest in fostering employee connectedness. This means being intentional about working norms—for example, having everyone join meetings via videoconference so that it’s easier for employees to participate when they are working remotely. It also means finding new ways to foster camaraderie and connection, such as making creative use of technology to facilitate watercooler-style interactions and team celebrations. Companies could also benefit from dedicating resources to team bonding events and, whether they’re virtual or in person, taking special care to make sure that all employees feel included and that events are accessible to everyone.

4. Be purposeful about in-person work. Many employees don’t want to come into the office to do work they can just as easily do at home. In light of this, many companies are starting to refocus in-person work on activities that take advantage of being together, such as high-level planning, learning and development training, and bursts of heavy collaboration.

5. Make sure the playing field is level. It’s important that employees who choose remote- or hybrid-work options get the same support and opportunities as on-site employees. Managers play a central role here, and many could benefit from additional training on how to foster remote and hybrid employees’ career development and minimize flexibility stigma. Equal access to mentorship and sponsorship is also key, yet less than half of companies offer virtual mentorship and sponsorship programs. Finally, companies can put safeguards in place to ensure employees who take advantage of remote- and hybrid-work options aren’t disadvantaged in performance reviews. This means communicating to managers that employees should be evaluated based on measurable results—not when or where they work—and closely tracking performance ratings and promotions for remote, hybrid, and on-site employees.

The importance of managers

Managers play an essential role in shaping women’s—and all employees’—work experiences. When managers invest in people management and DEI, women are happier and less burned out. They’re also more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work and less likely to think about leaving their jobs, which translates to better recruiting and higher retention.

Expectations of managers have risen over the past two years: the shift to remote and hybrid work has made management more challenging, and a majority of HR leaders say their company now expects managers to do more to promote inclusion and support employees’ career development and well-being. But relatively few companies are training managers adequately to meet these new demands, and even fewer recognize DEI work and good people management in managers’ performance reviews. This disconnect is apparent in the way managers show up. Only about half of women say their manager regularly encourages respectful behavior on their team, and less than half say their manager shows interest in their career and helps them manage their workload (Exhibit 6).

How companies can equip, motivate, and reward good managers

To begin to close the gap between what’s expected of managers and how they show up, companies could focus on two key objectives:

1. Give managers more training and support. Although a majority of companies provide general training for managers, far fewer address specifics that are critical to managing teams today, such as how to minimize burnout and ensure promotions are equitable. Research shows that when training focuses on concrete topics like these, it leads to better results. 3 3. Joelle Emerson, “Don’t give up on unconscious bias training—make it better,” Harvard Business Review , April 28, 2017. Companies could also benefit from stepping back to make sure people managers have the time and resources they need to do their jobs well.

2. Hold managers accountable and reward those who excel. It’s increasingly common for employees to review their manager’s performance, and prompts to gather more expansive input can be added to employee evaluation forms. Many companies track attrition rates, promotion rates, and other career outcomes and conduct surveys to measure employee satisfaction and well-being. Insights from these processes can be built into managers’ performance evaluations. In addition, companies can take steps to signal their expectations and reward results more clearly, such as by sharing well-being and diversity metrics with all employees and publicly acknowledging managers who stand out for their efforts to support employees and foster inclusion on their teams.

Recommendations for companies

To make meaningful and sustainable progress toward gender equality, companies should consider focusing on two broad goals: getting more women into leadership and retaining the women leaders they already have. That will require pushing beyond common practices. Companies with better representation of women, especially women of color, are going further. For example, they’re doubling down on setting goals and holding leaders accountable. They’re offering more specific and actionable training so that managers are better equipped to support their teams. And they’re offering a constellation of benefits to improve women’s day-to-day work experiences including, flexibility, emergency childcare benefits, and mental-health support. Companies that want to see better results would benefit from following their lead and break new ground.

Most companies also need to take specific, highly targeted steps to fix their broken rung. This starts with identifying where the largest gap in promotions is for women in their pipeline. Then companies need to make sure women and men are put up for promotions at similar rates, monitor outcomes to make sure they’re equitable, and root out biased aspects of their evaluation process.

When implementing new policies and programs, companies can ensure they don’t simply “check the box.” Programs should be high-quality—research shows that in some areas, low-quality programs can be more harmful than doing nothing at all. 4 4. “Don’t give up on unconscious bias training, ”April 28, 2017; Shelley J. Correll, “Reducing gender biases in modern workplaces: A small wins approach to organizational change,” Gender & Society , December 1, 2017, Volume 31, Number 6. And companies should evaluate the impact of programs to assess whether benefits are equitable and identify areas where certain groups may need more targeted support.

Based on an analysis of HR and DEI best practices, we have highlighted select policies and programs that are more prevalent in companies that have a higher representation of women and women of color (Exhibit 7).

The COVID-19 crisis and racial reckoning of 2020 pushed corporate America to reimagine the way we work. Two and a half years later, employees want to move forward with the workplace of the future.

This is especially true for women. Women are ambitious and hardworking. They’re more inclusive and empathetic leaders. And they want to work for companies that are prioritizing the cultural changes that are improving work. Companies that rise to the moment will attract and retain the women leaders—which will lead to a better workplace for everyone.


Alexis Krivkovich and Lareina Yee  are senior partners in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where Wei Wei Liu and Ishanaa Rambachan are partners, and Nicole Robinson is an associate partner; Hilary Nguyen is a consultant in the Chicago office; and Monne Williams is a partner in the Atlanta office.

The authors wish to to thank Carolyn Chu, Erin Friedlander Blank, Dom Furlong, Lea Herzberg, Isabelle Hughes, Sophie LaRoche, Michelle Lee, Jillian Mazon, Bevan Pearson, Jenna Scalmanini, Katie Shi, Julia Sun, Lynn Takeshita, Alice Tang, Erica Tashma, and Kinsey Yost for their immense contributions to this report.

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Women in the Workplace 2019

Women in the workplace 2018, women in the workplace 2017, women in the workplace 2016, women in the workplace 2015, a year and a half into the covid-19 pandemic, women in corporate america are even more burned out than they were last year—and increasingly more so than men. despite this, women leaders are stepping up to support employee well-being and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, but that work is not getting recognized. that’s according to the latest women in the workplace report from mckinsey, in partnership with leanin.org ..

This is the seventh year of Women in the Workplace, the largest study of women in corporate America. This effort, conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org, analyzes the representation of women in corporate America, provides an overview of HR policies and programs—including HR leaders’ sentiment on the most effective diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices—and explores the intersectional experiences of different groups of women at work. The data set this year reflects contributions from 423 participating organizations employing 12 million people and more than 65,000 people surveyed on their workplace experiences; in-depth interviews were also conducted with women of diverse identities, including women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities.

The state of women hangs in the balance

A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, women have made important gains in representation, and especially in senior leadership. But the pandemic continues to take a toll. Women are now significantly more burned out—and increasingly more so than men.

Despite this added stress and exhaustion, women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders and taking on the extra work that comes with this: compared with men at the same level, women are doing more to support their teams and advance diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They are also more likely to be allies to women of color. Yet this critical work is going unrecognized and unrewarded by most companies, and that has concerning implications. Companies risk losing the very leaders they need right now, and it’s hard to imagine organizations navigating the pandemic and building inclusive workplaces if this work isn’t truly prioritized.

There is also a disconnect between companies’ growing commitment to racial equity  and the lack of improvement we see in the day-to-day experiences of women of color. Women of color face similar types and frequencies of microaggressions as they did two years ago—and they remain far more likely than White women to be on the receiving end of disrespectful and “othering” behavior. And while more White employees see themselves as allies to women of color, they are no more likely than last year to speak out against discrimination, mentor or sponsor women of color, or take other actions to advocate for them. This points to the critical need for businesses to equip employees at all levels to challenge bias and show up as allies.

The path forward is clear. Companies need to take bold steps to address burnout. They need to recognize and reward the women leaders who are driving progress. And they need to do the deep cultural work required to create a workplace where all women feel valued.

It’s the only time of my career that I seriously considered a less demanding job. I took another interview. I felt burned out so often. I felt caught in the middle of everyone’s emotional response to the pandemic and in between decision makers who have very, very different outlooks on how to respond. It was the first time I had to solve problems that so directly impacted people’s mental and physical health. It was the hardest working year of my life. Straight White woman, senior vice president

Women made gains in representation in 2020, but burnout is still on the rise

In spite of the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis , women’s representation improved across all levels of the corporate pipeline in 2020. This is an encouraging sign—and worth celebrating after an incredibly difficult year. But there are also persistent gaps in the pipeline: promotions at the first step up to manager are not equitable, and women of color lose ground in representation at every level.

There is still a “broken rung” at the first step up to manager. Since 2016, we have seen the same trend: women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men, and this makes it nearly impossible for companies to lay a foundation for sustained progress at more senior levels. Additionally, the gains in representation for women overall haven’t translated to gains for women of color. Women of color continue to lose ground at every step in the pipeline—between the entry level and the C-suite, the representation of women of color drops off by more than 75 percent. As a result, women of color account for only 4 percent of C-suite leaders, a number that hasn’t moved significantly in the past three years.

The representation of women is only part of the story. The pandemic continues to take a toll on employees, and especially women. Women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and burnout is escalating much faster among women than among men. One in three women says that they have considered downshifting their career or leaving the workforce this year, compared with one in four who said this a few months into the pandemic. Additionally, four in ten women have considered leaving their company or switching jobs—and high employee turnover in recent months suggests that many of them are following through.

Although it’s not yet clear how the events of the past year and a half will affect the representation of women in corporate America in the long run, it’s very clear that this crisis is far from over. The risk to women, and to the companies that depend on their contributions, remains very real.

The state of the corporate pipeline

Women’s representation has increased across the pipeline since 2016. However, women—especially women of color—remain significantly underrepresented in leadership (Exhibit 1).

Women of color lose ground at every step

Representation of women of color falls off relative to White men, White women, and men of color at every step in the corporate pipeline, leaving them severely underrepresented at the top (Exhibit 2).

The ‘broken rung’ is still holding women back

Women continue to face a broken rung at the first step up to manager: for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted (Exhibit 3). As a result, men outnumber women significantly at the manager level, which means that there are far fewer women to promote to higher levels. The broken rung likely explains why representation of women at the senior-manager, director, and vice-president levels has improved more slowly than the pipeline overall.

Women are more burned out—and more so than men

Women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and the gap in burnout between women and men has almost doubled (Exhibit 4). In the past year, one in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their career—a significant increase from one in four in the first few months of the pandemic.

Women are rising to the moment as stronger leaders, but their work is going unrecognized

The events of 2020 put extraordinary pressure on companies and employees. The COVID-19 crisis shook the economy and turned people’s lives upside down, both at work and at home. A heightened focus on racism and racial violence triggered a reckoning on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Companies’ current priorities reflect these changes: an overwhelming majority of companies say that managers’ efforts to promote employee well-being are critically important and that DEI is one of their key areas of focus.

Women leaders are meeting this moment and taking on the work that comes with it (Exhibit 5). They are doing more than men in similar positions in supporting the people on their teams—for example, by helping team members navigate work–life challenges, ensuring that their workloads are manageable, and checking in on their overall well-being. Women leaders also spend more time than men on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities, such as supporting employee resource groups and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. Senior-level women are twice as likely as senior-level men to dedicate time to these tasks at least weekly. And finally, women leaders are showing up as more active allies to women of color. They are more likely than men to educate themselves about the challenges that women of color face at work, to speak out against discrimination, and to mentor or sponsor women of color.

When managers support employee well-being and companies prioritize DEI, employees are happier, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving their jobs. In spite of all this, relatively few companies formally recognize employees who go above and beyond in these areas—and this needs to change.

Overlooking critical work around employee well-being and DEI has serious implications: It hurts women, who are investing disproportionate time and energy in these priorities. And it hurts companies and all employees, because progress is rarely made on efforts that are undervalued.

Women managers are stepping up to support their teams

Compared with men in similar positions, women managers are taking more consistent action to promote employee well-being—including checking in on their team members, helping them manage their workloads, and providing support for team members who are dealing with burnout or navigating work–life challenges.

Women leaders are champions of DEI

Compared with men at their level, women leaders are up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on DEI work that falls outside their formal job responsibilities—such as supporting employee resource groups, organizing events, and recruiting employees from underrepresented groups. They are also more likely than men to take allyship actions such as mentoring women of color, advocating for new opportunities for them, and actively confronting discrimination.

In my industry, there’s not a lot of women. And most definitely in leadership roles, there’s not a lot of women and most definitely not many women of color. So I’ve always been intentional to try to give back and do what I could to inspire and encourage and motivate those who need an advocate. Black woman, senior manager

The work women leaders are doing drives better outcomes for all employees

When managers support employee well-being, employees are happier, less burned out, and less likely to consider leaving. The same is true of employees who have strong allies and believe DEI is a high priority for their company.

This critical well-being and DEI work is going overlooked

Companies see the value of women leaders’ contributions. Almost 70 percent of companies say that the work employees do to promote DEI is very or extremely critical, and an even greater number say this is true of the work managers do to support employee well-being. But less than a quarter of companies are recognizing this work to a substantial extent in formal evaluations like performance reviews.

Women of color continue to have a worse experience at work

Even after a year of increased focus on DEI and racial equity in corporate America, women of color continue to face significant bias and discrimination at work. They are experiencing similar types of microaggressions, at similar relative frequencies, as they were two years ago. And although the number of White employees who identify as allies to women of color has increased over the past year, the number taking key allyship actions has not.

While all women are more likely than men to face microaggressions that undermine them professionally—such as being interrupted and having their judgement questioned—women of color often experience these microaggressions at a higher rate. And women of color are much more likely than White women to face disrespectful and “othering” microaggressions that reinforce harmful stereotypes or cast them as outsiders. These experiences can take a heavy toll: women who regularly experience microaggressions are twice as likely as those who don’t to be burned out, more than twice as likely to report feeling negatively about their job, and almost three times as likely to say that in the past few months they have struggled to concentrate at work as a result of stress.

In addition to taking on more work, women leaders often face greater challenges

As women move into leadership roles, their day-to-day experiences often become more difficult. Compared with entry-level women, they are more than twice as likely to say that they are often the only or one of the only women in the room at work. They are also more likely to face microaggressions that challenge their competence—such as being interrupted, hearing comments on their emotional state, or having their judgment questioned. Men face these challenges more rarely and experience them at lesser rates as they gain seniority.

Women of color not only still face higher rates of microaggressions, they also still lack active allies. We continue to see a troubling gap—although more than three-quarters of White employees consider themselves allies to women of color at work, less than half take basic allyship actions, such as speaking out against bias or advocating for new opportunities for women of color. What’s more, there is a notable disconnect between the allyship actions that women of color find most meaningful and the actions that White employees prioritize.

Given the day-to-day challenges they’re facing, it’s not surprising that women of color are less optimistic than White women about their companies’ commitment to DEI. And less than half feel their company has substantially followed through on commitments to racial equity.

Women of color face a wider range of microaggressions

All women are more likely than men to face microaggressions at work. But for women of color and women with other traditionally marginalized identities, these experiences are more frequent and reflect a wider range of biases (Exhibit 6). For example, Black women are almost four times as likely as White women—and Latinas and Asian women are two to three times as likely—to hear people express surprise at their language skills or other abilities, and we see a similar pattern for other common microaggressions, as well.

LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities are also significantly more likely than women overall to experience microaggressions. Women with disabilities in particular are much more likely than women overall to have their competence challenged or to be undermined at work.

The ‘allyship gap’ persists

Allyship from more privileged colleagues can make a big difference in the experiences of women of color: when women of color feel like they have strong allies at work, they are happier in their jobs, less likely to be burned out, and less likely to consider leaving their companies. But although more than three-quarters of White employees consider themselves allies to women of color at work, far fewer are taking key allyship actions consistently.

There is a notable disconnect between the allyship actions that women of color say are most meaningful and the actions that White employees prioritize (Exhibit 7). Although White employees recognize that speaking out against discrimination is critical, they are less likely to recognize the importance of more proactive, sustained steps such as advocating for new opportunities for women of color and stepping up as mentors and sponsors.

Women who are ‘Onlys’ and ‘double Onlys’ have a much worse experience

Women who are “Onlys”—meaning, they are often one of the only people of their race or gender in the room at work—have especially difficult day-to-day experiences. Onlys stand out, and because of that, they tend to be more heavily scrutinized. Their successes and failures are often put under a microscope, and they are more likely to encounter comments and behavior that reduce them to negative stereotypes.

Being an Only for one dimension of identity is already incredibly difficult. But women of color sometimes have to contend with being Onlys on two dimensions: both as the only woman in the room and as the only person of their race in the room. “Double Onlys” face even more bias, discrimination, and pressure to perform, and they are even more likely to be experiencing burnout.

Being an Only or double Only can dramatically compound other challenges women are facing at work. Mothers of young children are one example of this—they already face more bias and barriers than fathers and women overall, and when they are often the only woman in the room in their workplace, their experience is even more difficult.

Compared with mothers of young children who regularly work with other women, those who are Onlys are significantly more likely to experience burnout or to consider leaving their companies. They are also more likely to feel judged or to be worried about how their career might be affected if they take advantage of options that make it easier to balance work and life, such as working from home or working nonstandard hours. And they are less likely to feel comfortable sharing their personal challenges with colleagues, which means they’re less likely to get the support they need.

The road to progress

Although we have seen important gains since 2016, women are still significantly underrepresented at all levels of management. And on top of this, women continue to have a worse day-to-day experience at work. Women are more likely than men to have their competence questioned and their authority undermined, and women of color and other women with traditionally marginalized identities are especially likely to face disrespectful and “othering” behavior.

To drive change, companies need to invest deeply in all aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This starts with taking bold steps to ensure that women of diverse identities are well represented, but diversity of numbers isn’t enough on its own. Companies also need to create a culture that fully leverages the benefits of diversity—one in which women, and all employees, feel comfortable bringing their unique ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the table. When women are respected and their contributions are valued, they are more likely to be happy in their jobs and to feel connected to their coworkers.

Although there are no quick fixes to these challenges, there are steps companies can and should take. First, they need to put more practices in place to ensure promotions are equitable. Companies are currently taking more steps to reduce bias in hiring, and they need to apply that same rigor to the performance review process. For example, less than half of companies provide bias training for employees involved in performance reviews, compared with two-thirds that do so for hiring. Expanding this training would likely lead to better promotion outcomes for women and other employees from underrepresented groups.

Second, companies need to track representation and hiring and promotion outcomes more fully. Although most companies track representation for women overall, far fewer do this for women of color, which means women of color are often overlooked in diversity metrics. Companies would also be well-served to track hiring and promotions to determine whether women, and especially women of color, are being hired and promoted at similar rates to other employees. If they see gaps at particular levels or in certain functions, they may need to make adjustments, including doubling down on best practices in those areas.

To accelerate progress for all women, on all fronts, companies need to double their efforts when it comes to accountability. Despite saying that gender and racial diversity are among their most important business priorities, only two-thirds of companies hold senior leaders accountable for progress on diversity goals, and less than a third hold managers—who play a critical role in hiring and promotions decisions—accountable. Moreover, among companies that say they hold leaders accountable, less than half factor progress on diversity metrics into performance reviews, and far fewer provide financial incentives for meeting goals. This means their accountability isn’t tied to material consequences—and it’s therefore much less likely to produce results.

How companies can make their workplaces more inclusive

Companies still have work to do to create a culture that fully embraces and leverages diversity. HR leaders say that two things are critical to this effort: senior-level sponsorship and high employee engagement.

Senior leaders need to fully and publicly support DEI efforts. When senior-level employees model inclusive leadership and actively participate in training and events related to DEI, they send a powerful signal about the importance of this work. Senior leaders also play a key role in ensuring that DEI initiatives are appropriately resourced across their organizations. This is just another reason why it is critically important to hold leaders accountable for progress on DEI efforts and to formalize this accountability.

But women’s day-to-day experiences are shaped primarily by their interactions with managers and colleagues, which means that deep cultural change is possible only if all employees are empowered to be part of the solution. This starts with raising awareness. Employees need to understand the barriers that women face—particularly women with traditionally marginalized identities—and the benefits of a more inclusive culture. Companies can promote awareness by sharing data on the experiences of women in their organizations, bringing in thought-provoking speakers, and encouraging employees to openly share their experience and ideas for advancing DEI.

For employees to move from awareness to action, training is an important step. The number of employees who receive training on bias, antiracism, and allyship is on the rise—but only 34 percent of employees have received antiracism training in the past year, and just 14 percent have received allyship training. This suggests that companies may need to take bolder steps to encourage participation, such as offering incentives or making training mandatory. They should also invest in ongoing employee education; it takes consistent reinforcement to reshape deep-rooted biases and change behavior, so a one-and-done approach to training is not enough. And companies need to be sure that they are incorporating the new ideas and tools from training into everyday processes, too. For example, before hiring and promotion processes begin, companies can send out reminders about how bias can influence evaluations; research shows that this simple practice can improve outcomes for women and other people from underrepresented groups.

Finally, companies should clearly communicate what is expected of employees and what it means to have an inclusive culture. Building this thinking into company values is a good place to start, but organizations would benefit from articulating the specific behaviors and actions that promote inclusion. In addition to signaling the importance of this work, clear guidelines will help set managers and all employees up for success.

How companies can begin to address burnout

Companies have demonstrated strong commitment to employee well-being over the past year. They have taken a wide range of steps to help employees weather the pandemic, including increasing mental-health benefits, adding support for parents and caregivers, and offering more paid leave. These steps have led to better outcomes for all employees, and they have likely played a key role in allowing many women to remain in the workforce.

However, burnout is still on the rise, especially among women. There is no easy fix, so continued investment will be critical. Companies also should look for opportunities to expand on the successful policies and programs they have already established and try new approaches. It’s also important that companies establish new norms and systems to improve employees’ everyday work experiences—even with all the right policies and programs, employees will continue to struggle if the cadence and expectations of their work feel untenable.

Across all of their efforts to combat burnout, companies would benefit from embracing experimentation. There is no playbook for this unprecedented moment, but companies can make strides by listening closely to employees, exploring creative solutions, and trying something different if a new norm or program falls flat.

As companies embrace flexibility, they also need to set clear boundaries

Over the past 18 months, companies have embraced flexibility. More than three-quarters of senior HR leaders say that allowing employees to work flexible hours is one of the most effective things they’ve done to improve employee well-being, and there are clear signs it’s working. Employees with more flexibility to take time off and step away from work are much less likely to be burned out, and very few employees are concerned that requesting flexible work arrangements has affected their opportunity to advance.

However, many companies are missing a crucial piece: without clear boundaries, flexible work can quickly turn into “always on” work. More than a third of employees feel like they need to be available for work 24/7, and almost half believe they need to work long hours to get ahead. Employees who feel this way are much more likely to be burned out and to consider leaving their companies.

The fact that so many employees feel “always on” signals that companies need to define expectations more explicitly. Right now, many companies are leaving it to employees to establish their own boundaries when they work remotely or work flexible hours—and while employees should be empowered to carve out personal time, companies have a responsibility to put formal boundaries in place across the organization. Only one in five employees says that their company has told them that they don’t need to respond to nonurgent requests outside of traditional work hours, and only one in three has received guidance around blocking off personal time on their calendar. Establishing or reinforcing work norms such as these would go a long way toward reducing the feeling of being always on.

Someone saying, ‘Hey, go take a couple days off to deal with this’ would go a long way. The company I work for is really strict about time off, which I think has led a lot of people in the organization to become really burned out. I know it’s caused me to get overly stressed and work more than I should to save up time to take off later, which just means you never recover from burnout. White trans woman, entry level

As companies navigate the transition to increased remote and hybrid work—with more employees working different schedules across different time zones—the risk of feeling always on will likely increase. Establishing clear boundaries now can help companies ease this transition.

Managers have an important role to play in fighting burnout

Managers are on the front lines of employees’ day-to-day experiences, which means their actions have a significant impact on employee burnout and well-being. To improve outcomes, managers should focus their attention in three key areas: modeling work–life boundaries, supporting employee well-being, and ensuring that performance is evaluated based on results.

Employees often look to their manager to understand unspoken company norms and expectations. This means that managers need to respect company-wide boundaries around flexible work. For example, if employees aren’t expected to respond to emails during certain hours, managers need to abide by that norm. Managers can further reinforce the importance of these norms by celebrating employees who push back when boundaries are crossed and by encouraging candid conversations and problem solving across the team if boundaries start to erode.

To underscore that employees are not expected to be “always on,” companies and managers need to work together to make sure all employees are evaluated based on results rather than when or where they work. A results-oriented lens is critical in formal performance reviews, and managers should be mindful of the day-to-day feedback they deliver to ensure they aren’t inadvertently signaling that long hours and face time are unspoken measures of performance.

It’s also important that managers actively monitor employees for signs of burnout and adjust workloads as needed. Although some managers are stepping up on this front—especially women—a majority of employees report that their manager doesn’t check in on their well-being or help them shift priorities and deadlines on a regular basis. This suggests that managers need to touch base with their teams more consistently, and that these check-ins should be more explicit. Prompting employees to rate their level of stress and exhaustion on a one-to-ten scale, as opposed to generally asking them how they’re doing, creates more space for open, honest discussion.

Finally, companies need to impress upon managers that the work they do to support employee well-being is critical to the health and success of the business. For this work to feel like a real priority, it needs to be tied to concrete outcomes for managers, including performance ratings and compensation.

Looking ahead

The immediate challenge for companies is to help employees get through the pandemic—and the work to get this right is far from over. But companies also need to start to plan for the future. The disruption of the past year and half is driving a fundamental change in the way people work. Companies are embracing flexibility and remote work at levels that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago—and employees are fully on board. It will take time for the full impact of the pandemic to come into focus, but one thing is clear: hybrid work is here to stay.

What’s unclear is whether companies can capitalize on this seismic shift—and the growing cultural focus on employee well-being and racial equity—to create more caring, connected, and inclusive workplaces. This is a rare opportunity to change the workplace for good. Doing so will require pushing for bigger gains in representation of women, recognizing and rewarding women’s contributions as people-focused leaders and champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and doing the deep cultural work necessary to create a workplace where all women, and all employees, feel like they belong.

This will demand a level of investment and creativity that may not have seemed possible before the pandemic, but companies have shown what they can do when change is critical. Now, they need to treat women’s equality and diversity, equity, and inclusion with the same sense of urgency—and they need to reward the leaders taking us into the future.

This is an edited extract from Women in the Workplace 2021, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org. The study builds on the Women in the Workplace reports from 2015 to 2020, as well as similar research conducted by McKinsey in 2012. For more information, visit womenintheworkplace.com .

Tiffany Burns is a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office; Jess Huang is a partner in the Silicon Valley office; Alexis Krivkovich and Lareina Yee are senior partners in the San Francisco office, where Ishanaa Rambachan is a partner; and Tijana Trkulja is a consultant in the New York office.

The authors would like to thank Sofia Alvarado, David Corfield, Nawel Gabouge, Worth Gentry, Alison Gerard, Beatriz Go, Sanchika Gupta, Anne Marie Hawley, Melinda Lee, Yuan Qu, Stephanie Yeh, and Zhengren Zhu for their immense contribution to this report.

In a year marked by crisis and uncertainty, corporate America is at a crossroads. The choices companies make today will have consequences on gender equality  for decades to come.

This is the sixth year of the Women in the Workplace study—in a year unlike any other. This effort, conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org, tracks the progress of women in corporate America. The data set this year reflects contributions from 317 companies that participated in the study and more than 40,000 people surveyed on their workplace experiences; more than 45 in-depth interviews were also conducted to dive deeper on the issues. These efforts were in the field from June to August of 2020, although the pipeline data represents employer-provided information from calendar year 2019.

The events of 2020 have turned workplaces upside down. Under the highly challenging circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic , many employees are struggling to do their jobs. Many feel like they’re “always on” now that the boundaries between work and home have blurred. They’re worried about their family’s health and finances. Burnout is a real issue.

Women in particular have been negatively impacted. Women—especially women of color—are more likely to have been laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 crisis, 5 5. Anu Madgavkar, Olivia White, Mekala Krishnan, Deepa Mahajan, and Xavier Azcue, “ COVID-19 and gender equality: Countering the regressive effects ,” Mckinsey Global Institute, July 15, 2020; Aria Florant, Nick Noel, Shelly Stewart, and Jason Wright, “ COVID-19: Investing in black lives and livelihoods ,” April 14, 2020. In this study, women of color include Black, Latina, Asian, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or mixed-race women. However, due to small sample sizes, reported findings on individual racial/ethnic groups are restricted to Black women, Latinas, and Asian women. stalling their careers and jeopardizing their financial security. The pandemic has intensified challenges that women already faced. Working mothers have always worked a “double shift”—a full day of work, followed by hours spent caring for children and doing household labor. Now the supports that made this possible—including school and childcare—have been upended. Meanwhile, Black women already faced more barriers to advancement than most other employees. 6 6. Women in the Workplace 2019 , LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, October 2019; The State of Black Women in Corporate America , LeanIn.Org, August 2020, leanin.org. Today they’re also coping with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community . And the emotional toll of repeated instances of racial violence falls heavily on their shoulders.

As a result of these dynamics, more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. This is an emergency for corporate America. Companies risk losing women in leadership—and future women leaders—and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.

The crisis also represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace—and there are signs that this is starting to happen—they can retain the employees most affected by today’s crises and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term. The rest of this article summarizes the report’s main findings (and you can go even deeper with a behind-the-scenes chat with one of the report’s coauthors on our blog).

Progress toward gender parity remains slow

At the beginning of 2020, the representation of women in corporate America was trending in the right direction. This was most pronounced in senior management: between January 2015 and January 2020, representation of women in senior-vice-president positions grew from 23 to 28 percent, and representation in the C-suite grew from 17 to 21 percent (Exhibit 1). Women remained dramatically underrepresented—particularly women of color—but the numbers were slowly improving.

Despite gains for women in leadership, the “broken rung” was still a major barrier in 2019. For the sixth year in a row, women continued to lose ground at the first step up to manager. For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered in entry-level management at the beginning of 2020—they held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent (Exhibit 2).

The COVID-19 crisis could set women back half a decade

A closer look at the challenges that could force women out of the workforce.

The pressures of the pandemic are driving some employees—and especially women—to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce. The following factors predict whether an employee considers downshifting their career or leaving the workforce:

Although these factors hurt all employees, some groups of women experience certain challenges at higher rates. For example, mothers are more likely than fathers to worry that their performance is being negatively judged due to their caregiving responsibilities. Women in senior-leadership roles are more likely than men at the same level to feel as though they are “always on.” And Black women are more likely than women and men overall to feel like they can’t bring their whole selves to work.

Before this year, Women in the Workplace research had consistently found that women and men leave their companies at comparable rates. However, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 crisis, as many as two million women are considering leaving the workforce 7 7. Leaving the workforce is defined in this report as taking a leave of absence or leaving the workforce altogether. . If these women feel forced to leave the workplace, we’ll end up with far fewer women in leadership—and far fewer women on track to be future leaders. All the progress we’ve seen over the past six years could be erased (see sidebar, “A closer look at the challenges that could force women out of the workforce”).

Companies are stepping up—but many aren’t addressing the likely underlying causes of stress and burnout

Many companies have taken important steps to support employees during the COVID-19 crisis. They are sharing valuable information with employees, including updates on the business’s financial situation and details about paid-leave policies. Almost all companies are providing tools and resources to help employees work remotely. Many have also expanded services related to mental health, such as counseling and enrichment programs, and offered training to help managers support employees’ mental health and well-being.

However, fewer companies have taken steps to adjust the norms and expectations that are most likely responsible for employee stress and burnout. Less than a third of companies have adjusted their performance review criteria to account for the challenges created by the pandemic, and only about half have updated employees on their plans for performance reviews or their productivity expectations during COVID-19. That means many employees—especially parents and caregivers—are facing the choice between falling short of pre-pandemic expectations that may now be unrealistic, or pushing themselves to keep up an unsustainable pace (Exhibit 3).

There is also the issue of financial anxiety. Companies are putting policies and programs in place to ease employees’ financial stress. More than half have increased paid leave—which is an important option for employees who need time off but can’t afford to miss a paycheck—and about a third have added or expanded stipends to offset the costs of working from home. However, companies that are struggling financially may not be able to address the issue employees are most concerned about: the possibility of being laid off or furloughed. Sadly, for companies struggling financially or rethinking their business, it may not be possible to reassure their employees on this front.

COVID-19 could push many mothers out of the workforce

Decades of research shows that women do significantly more housework and childcare than men—so much so that women who are employed full-time are often said to be working a “double shift.” 8 8. “Average hours per day parents spent caring for and helping household children as their main activity,” American Time Use Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019, bls.gov; Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home , first edition, New York: Viking Press, 1989. Now women, and mothers in particular, are taking on an even heavier load. Mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic. In fact, they’re 1.5 times more likely than fathers to be spending an additional three or more hours per day on housework and childcare (Exhibit 4).

Meanwhile, for the one in five mothers who don’t live with a spouse or partner, the challenges are even greater. Unsurprisingly, single mothers are much more likely than other parents to do all the housework and childcare in their household, and they are also more likely to say that financial insecurity is one of their top concerns during the pandemic.

One in three mothers have considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers because of COVID-19

Given the enormous challenges mothers are facing at work and at home, two things should come as no surprise: many mothers are considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce, and mothers are significantly more likely to be thinking about taking these steps than fathers (Exhibit 5). Among mothers who are thinking about downshifting or leaving, a majority cite childcare responsibilities as a primary reason.

Companies are at risk of losing women in leadership

Senior-level women are under the same pressure to perform right now as senior-level men—and then some. Women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure—so when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement. Senior-level women are also nearly twice as likely as women overall to be “Onlys”—the only or one of the only women in the room at work. That comes with its own challenges : women who are Onlys are more likely than women who work with other women to feel pressure to work more and to experience microaggressions, including needing to provide additional evidence of their competence.

Not surprisingly, senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out, under pressure to work more, and “as though they have to be ‘always on.’” And they are 1.5 times more likely than senior-level men to think about downshifting their role or leaving the workforce because of COVID-19. Almost three in four cite burnout as a main reason.

Companies can’t afford to lose women leaders

The possibility of losing so many senior-level women is alarming for several reasons.

The financial consequences could be significant. Research shows that company profits and share performance can be close to 50 percent higher when women are well represented at the top. 9 9. Sundiatu Dixon-Fyle, Kevin Dolan, Vivian Hunt, and Sara Prince, “ Diversity wins: How inclusion matters ,” May 19, 2020. Beyond that, senior-level women have a vast and meaningful impact on a company’s culture. They are more likely than senior-level men to embrace employee-friendly policies and programs and to champion racial and gender diversity: more than 50 percent of senior-level women say they consistently take a public stand for gender and racial equity at work, compared with about 40 percent of senior-level men (Exhibit 6). And they’re more likely to mentor and sponsor other women: 38 percent of senior-level women currently mentor or sponsor one or more women of color, compared with only 23 percent of senior-level men.

If women leaders leave the workforce, women at all levels could lose their most powerful allies and champions.

Black women are less likely to feel supported at work during COVID-19

Black women have always faced huge barriers to advancement. Now, in addition to the heightened pressures that Black women who are mothers and senior leaders are experiencing, they are also dealing with distinct issues because of their race. The COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected Black people, and incidents of violence toward Black people in the United States have exacted a heavy emotional and mental toll on Black women. On top of all this, many Black women do not feel supported by managers and coworkers (Exhibit 7).

The workplace has always been more unequal for Black women

Compared with their colleagues of other races and ethnicities, Black women have always had distinct, and by and large worse, experiences at work. They are promoted more slowly than other groups of employees and are significantly underrepresented in senior leadership. They are less likely than women of other races and ethnicities to say their manager advocates for new opportunities for them. And they have fewer interactions with senior leaders, which means they often don’t get the sponsorship and advocacy they need to advance. Given these challenges, it’s not surprising that Black women are less likely than employees of other races to report they have equal opportunity to advance at work.

Black women also deal with more day-to-day bias in their workplaces. They face a wider range of microaggressions, from having their judgment questioned to hearing demeaning remarks about themselves or people like them. Additionally, half of Black women are often Onlys for their race. Black women who are Onlys are especially likely to feel scrutinized, under increased pressure to perform, and as if their actions reflect positively or negatively on people like them.

Now, Black women are facing even more challenges

Black women are being disproportionately affected by the difficult events of 2020. They are more than twice as likely as women overall to say that the death of a loved one has been one of their biggest challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. And incidents of racial violence across the United States are exacting a heavy emotional toll.

Ideally, work would be a supportive place for Black women amid these national and global crises. Unfortunately, for many, that’s not the case. Black women are less likely than women overall to report that their manager has inquired about their workload or taken steps to ensure that their work–life needs are being met. 10 10. “Recent racial violence” refers to incidents of violence against Black Americans committed by law enforcement officers in early 2020, prior to the survey’s distribution in July–August 2020. Fewer than one in three Black women report their manager has checked in on them in light of recent racial violence or fostered an inclusive culture on their team. Plus, Black women are far less likely than White colleagues to say they have strong allies at work.

All of this is having an impact on Black women. They are more likely than employees of other races and ethnicities to feel uncomfortable talking with colleagues about the impact current events have had on their community and about their own grief and loss . They also feel more reluctant to share their thoughts on racial inequity. And compared with other employees, Black women feel more excluded at work and are less likely to say they can bring their whole selves to work.

How companies can better support Black women

Black women were already having a worse experience in the workplace than most other employees. Now they’re facing the same challenges other women are—plus painful and isolating challenges rooted in racism. To better support Black women, companies need to take action in two critical areas.

1. Address the distinct challenges of Black women head-on

Companies need to address the distinct experiences of Black women, who face obstacles rooted in both racism and sexism. The first step is making a public and explicit commitment to advancing and supporting Black women. This commitment should be communicated to employees, along with a clear explanation of why it’s important. Many employees don’t realize that Black women are having a markedly worse experience at work. But for six years, this study has shown this to be true: compared with women of other races and ethnicities, Black women face more systemic barriers, receive less support from managers, and experience more acute discrimination. If employees understand this, they will be more likely to champion the Black women in their organization.

To effectively turn their commitment into action, companies should adopt an intersectional approach to their diversity efforts. Many corporate diversity efforts focus on either race or gender, which means women of color may end up being overlooked. In contrast, when companies set goals and track outcomes by gender and race combined, they can more clearly see how Black women and other women of color are progressing. For example, if companies evaluate access to formal mentorship, sponsorship, and management training this way, Black women are more likely to get equal access to these critical opportunities.

2. Foster a culture that supports and values Black women

Companies need to foster a culture in which Black women—and other traditionally marginalized employees—feel like they belong. There are two equally important parts of this: making it clear that disrespectful behavior won’t be tolerated and taking proactive steps to make sure that Black women feel valued and welcome.

Many companies have specific guidelines for conduct that is not acceptable, which is a good first step. But it’s also important to articulate what positive, inclusive behavior looks like and celebrate examples of it in practice. Employees will be better equipped to do their part if they receive antiracism and allyship training; this will give them a more complete understanding of how to combat racial discrimination and how to show up for Black women as allies.

Finally, it’s important to reflect on organizational customs, rituals, and norms to make sure they’re inclusive. For example, are Black women being included in informal gatherings? Are team events held in spaces where everyone feels welcome and safe? Gathering input from Black women on what is and isn’t working for them is critical to this process—as is giving Black women a voice in shaping new company norms. The more that companies take into account the unique perspectives and experiences of different groups of employees, the more effectively they can create an inclusive culture.

The path forward

The choices companies make could shape the workplace for women for decades to come—for better or for worse.

The challenges facing companies right now are serious. Up to two million women are considering leaving the workforce. The “broken rung” that held millions of women back from being promoted to manager has not been repaired. Black women are dealing with additional challenges—including long-standing issues of racial bias—and getting less support from managers and coworkers.

There are two paths ahead. If companies recognize the scale of these problems and do all they can to address them, they can help their employees get through this difficult time and even reinvent the way they work so it’s more flexible and sustainable for everyone. If not, the consequences could badly hurt women, business, and the economy as a whole. This moment requires long-term thinking, creativity, strong leadership, and a laser focus on the value of women to their organizations.

To retain the women most affected by the challenges of COVID-19, companies need to take steps to reduce the additional pressures they’re experiencing. Here are six key areas where companies should focus or expand their efforts.

1) Make work more sustainable

A sustainable pace of work is essential to helping mothers, senior-level women, and all employees facing burnout get through this crisis. To make this happen, leaders and managers need to look at productivity and performance expectations set before COVID-19 and ask if they’re still realistic. They may also need to reset goals, narrow project scopes, or keep the same goals and extend deadlines. Currently, only a small number of managers are doing this.

Additionally, companies have found creative ways to give employees extra time off. For example, we’ve heard from companies that have offered “COVID-19 days” to give parents a chance to prepare for the new school year and from companies that close for a few Fridays each quarter to give everyone an opportunity to recharge.

2) Reset norms around flexibility

COVID-19 has made it much harder for employees to draw clear lines between work and home, and many employees feel like they are “always on.” Companies should look for ways to reestablish work–life boundaries. For many, this may require setting new work norms—for example, establishing set hours for meetings, putting policies in place for responding to emails outside typical business hours, and improving communication about work hours and availability within teams.

Companies can also encourage employees to set their own boundaries and take full advantage of flexible work options. Even when these options are available, some employees worry there may be a stigma attached to using them. To mitigate this, leaders can assure employees that their performance will be measured based on results—not when, where, or how many hours they work. Leaders can also communicate their support for workplace flexibility—57 percent of employees say senior leaders at their company have done this during COVID-19. Better yet, leaders can model flexibility in their own lives, which sends a message to employees that it’s OK to take advantage of flexible work options. When employees believe senior leaders are supportive of their flexibility needs, they are less likely to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

3) Take a close look at performance reviews

Performance reviews are an important part of running an effective organization and rewarding employees for their contributions. But given the shift to remote work and the heightened challenges employees are coping with in their personal lives, performance criteria set before COVID-19 may no longer be appropriate. Managers can relieve employees’ stress—and refocus on key priorities—by reassessing performance criteria set before the pandemic to make sure those criteria are still attainable. Bringing criteria into line with what employees can reasonably achieve may help to prevent burnout and anxiety—and this may ultimately lead to better performance and higher productivity. 11 11. Frederick Anseel, Jonas W.B. Lang, and Roy B.L. Sijbom, “Leaders achievement goals predict employee burnout above and beyond employees’ own achievement goals,” Wiley Online Library, August 3, 2018, onlinelibrary.wiley.com.

4) Take steps to minimize gender bias

The pandemic may be amplifying biases women have faced for years: higher performance standards, harsher judgment for mistakes, and penalties for being mothers and for taking advantage of flexible work options. 12 12. Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know ; first edition, New York: New York University Press, 2014; Shelley J. Correll et al., “Getting a job: Is there a motherhood penalty?,” American Journal of Sociology , Volume 112, Number 5, March 2007, pp. 1,297–1,339; Heejung Chung and Tanja van der Lippe, “Flexible working, work–life balance, and gender equality: Introduction,” Social Indicators Research , September 2020. These biases could show up in new ways during COVID-19: for example, when colleagues see young children playing in the background on video calls; when coworkers assume, consciously or unconsciously, that women are less committed to their jobs; or when managers are evaluating women in performance reviews. Given that managers and team members now have less visibility into their colleagues’ day-to-day work, they may be more likely to make assumptions about their performance, and this increases the chance of bias creeping in.

To mitigate the biases that women are up against, companies need to make sure that employees are aware of them. Leaders and employees should speak publicly about the potentially outsize impact of bias during COVID-19. Bias training can also help. In the past year, just one in four employees have participated in unconscious-bias training, and even employees who have participated in the past would benefit from a refresher. And finally, it’s important to track outcomes for promotions and raises by gender—as well as the breakdown of layoffs and furloughs by gender—to make sure women and men are being treated fairly.

5) Adjust policies and programs to better support employees

Many companies have extended policies and programs to support employees during COVID-19, from offering more paid time off to providing resources for homeschooling. Companies should make sure employees are aware of the full range of benefits available to them. Right now, there’s a significant gap between what companies offer and what employees are aware of. For example, almost all companies offer mental-health counseling, but only about half of employees know this benefit is available. The same trend holds for other valuable programs such as parenting resources, health checks, and bereavement counseling.

As organizations settle into the next normal, they should determine how effectively they are addressing employees’ biggest challenges and reallocate resources to the programs that are most valuable. Given how unprecedented this crisis is, they should also consider whether their benefits go far enough to support employees.

6) Strengthen employee communication

Open and frequent communication with employees is critical , especially in a crisis; when employees are surprised by decisions that have an impact on their work, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. Yet one in five employees have consistently felt uninformed or in the dark during COVID-19. This suggests that companies should share more regular updates on the state of the business and key decisions that affect employees’ work and lives—and they should directly address what difficult news means for employees. It’s also critical that leaders and HR teams communicate with empathy, so employees feel valued and understood. Research shows that this kind of openness and understanding reduces anxiety and builds trust among employees. 13 13. Linjuan Rita Men et al., “‘Vision, passion, and care:’ The impact of charismatic executive leadership communication on employee trust and support for organizational change,” Public Relations Review 46, No. 3 (September 2020), https://www.sciencedirect.com

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted companies to rethink fundamental beliefs about remote work. Ninety-three percent of companies now say more jobs can be performed remotely, and close to 70 percent predict a significant share of their employees will regularly work remotely a year from now. 14 14. Full question: What percentage of employees do you expect to be regularly working remotely (that is, a majority or all of the time) a year from now? Responded: 21–50 percent of employees, 51–90 percent of employees, or almost all employees. Employees see the benefits of remote work, too—almost eight in ten say they want to continue to work from home more often than they did before COVID-19.

This could be the beginning of a seismic shift in the way we work, with enormous implications. Companies may be able to tap into larger and more diverse talent pools, as opposed to limiting their recruiting to specific regions. And they already anticipate these benefits: 70 percent think remote work will allow them to increase diversity in their hiring. Moreover, remote work will open up opportunities for existing employees—particularly mothers, caregivers, older employees, and people with disabilities. If companies can create a culture that supports both in-person and remote workers , these employees will be able to take on jobs that previously would have required them to relocate, travel extensively, or manage a long commute.

The building blocks of a more empathetic workplace may also be falling into place

Many companies have made employee mental health and well-being  a much higher priority in the face of this crisis. Employees have more visibility than ever before into what’s going on in one another’s personal lives. And companies say that the crisis has created a feeling of solidarity and fostered empathy and understanding among employees.

Taken together, these dynamics point to an increased focus on supporting employees as “whole people.” And when employees feel like they can bring their whole selves to work, good things happen: they are happier with their job, more optimistic about their company’s commitment to gender and racial equality, and less likely to consider downshifting their role or leaving the workforce. They’re also more comfortable sharing challenges with managers and coworkers, giving companies the visibility to make changes that improve employees’ experiences. It’s a positive cycle: the more employees can bring their whole selves to work, the more the workplace will work for them—and for everyone.

This is an edited extract from Women in the Workplace 2020, a study undertaken by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org. It builds on the Women in the Workplace reports from 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019, as well as similar research conducted by McKinsey in 2012. For more information, visit womenintheworkplace.com .


Sarah Coury is consultant in McKinsey’s Chicago office; Jess Huang is a partner in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office; Ankur Kumar is an associate partner in the New York office; Sara Prince is a partner in the Atlanta office; Alexis Krivkovich  is a senior partner in the San Francisco office; and Lareina Yee is a senior partner in the San Francisco office.

By Jess Huang, Alexis Krivkovich , Irina Starikova, Lareina Yee , and Delia Zanoschi

Five years in to our research, we see bright spots at senior levels. But companies need to focus their efforts earlier in the pipeline to make real progress.

This year marks the fifth year of our research on Women in the Workplace, conducted in partnership with LeanIn.Org. We look back on data and insights since 2015 from close to 600 companies that participated in the study, more than a quarter of a million people that were surveyed on their workplace experiences, and more than 100 in-depth one-on-one interviews that were conducted. (See our infographic below for top-level findings from the past five years.)

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.

In this article, we share highlights from the full Women in the Workplace 2019 report, diving deep on the parts across pipeline and employee experience that will be most critical for companies to drive change in the next five years.

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 percent to 21 percent (Exhibit 1).

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. 15 15. In this study, women of color include Black, Latina, Asian, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or mixed-race women. However, due to small sample sizes, reported findings on individual racial/ethnic groups are restricted to Black women, Latinas, and Asian women. And without fundamental changes early in the pipeline, gains in women’s representation will ultimately stall.

Companies are adding more women to the C-suite

Today, 44 percent of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up from 29 percent of companies in 2015 (Exhibit 2). 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.

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 higher than in the past years. Second, senior-level women are being promoted on average at a higher rate than men.

Additionally, men at the SVP and C-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 (Exhibit 3). 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 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.

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.

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 are 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.

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 management, compared to 41 percent 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. 16 16. Cynthia DuBois, “The Impact of “Soft” Affirmative Action Policies on Minority Hiring in Executive Leadership: The Case of the NFL’s Rooney Rule,” American Law and Economics Review 18.1 (1 April 2016): 208–233, https://doi.org/10.1093/aler/ahv019; Stefanie K. Johnson, David R. Hekman, and Elsa T. Chan, “If There’s Only One Woman in Your Candidate Pool, There’s Statistically No Chance She’ll Be Hired,” Harvard Business Review , April 26, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/04/if-theres-only-one-woman-in-your-candidate-pool-theres-statistically-no-chance-shell-be hired; Jean Martin, “A Fairer Way to Make Hiring and Promotion Decisions,” Harvard Business Review , August 13, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/08/a-fairer-way-to-make-hiring-an.

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 entry-level 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, 17 17. Defined as companies with the highest ratio of manager-level to entry-level women’s 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. 18 18. Shelley Correll, “Reducing gender biases in modern workplaces: A small wins approach to organizational change,” Gender & Society 31, no. 6 (December 1, 2017): 725–50, stanford.edu.

5. Put more women in line for the step up to manager

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.

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 prior 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.

A few key practices shape how employees view opportunity and fairness

Manager support, sponsorship, and impartial hiring and promotion practices are key elements in creating a workplace that delivers opportunity and fairness to everyone. Managers and sponsors open doors that help employees advance. And when hiring and promotions are unbiased, the most deserving employees can rise to the top—and employees feel more confident that the process for advancement is fair.

1. Manager support

Managers have a big impact on how employees view their day-to-day opportunities. Employees are more likely to think they have equal opportunities for growth and advancement when their manager helps them manage their career, showcases their work, 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: only about one in four employees say managers help them manage their career and about one in three say managers advocate for new opportunities for them a great deal.

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.

2. Sponsorship

Sponsorship can open doors, and more employees need it. Fewer than half of the employees at the manager level or higher serve as sponsors, and only one in three employees say 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. Outside research shows that sponsorship accelerates career advancement, 19 19. Center for Talent Innovation, “The sponsor dividend,” 2019, talentinnovation.org. 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 these best practices, but progress toward full adoption is slow. This year only 6 of 323 20 20. This year, 323 companies completed the HR portion of the survey. 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 overall. 21 21. “Lesbian women” includes all women who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or homosexual in the survey. 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.

Commitment to gender diversity has increased significantly

Today, 87 percent of companies are highly committed to gender diversity, compared to 56 percent in 2012, when McKinsey & Company first conducted a similar study on the state of women at work. Since 2015, senior leader and manager commitment to gender diversity has also increased, and employee commitment—especially among men—has risen significantly (Exhibit 4).

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. 22 22. Seventy-six percent of employees are satisfied with their job when they feel that their company prioritizes gender diversity, compared to 57 percent of employees who do not feel like their company prioritizes gender diversity. There are also signs that commitment will continue to trend in a positive direction. Younger generations are more likely to see bias in the workplace—for example, managers under 30 are more likely to say they see bias than older employees at the same level.

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 almost 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.

The right policies can have a big impact: 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 (Exhibit 20195).

Jess Huang and Irina Starikova are partners in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office, where Delia Zanoschi is a consultant; Alexis Krivkovich and Lareina Yee are senior partners in the San Francisco office.

By Alexis Krivkovich , Marie-Claude Nadeau , Kelsey Robinson , Nicole Robinson, Irina Starikova, and Lareina Yee

Progress on gender diversity at work has stalled. To achieve equality, companies must turn good intentions into concrete action.

Companies report that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But that commitment has not translated into meaningful progress. The proportion of women at every level in corporate America has hardly changed. Progress isn’t just slow. It’s stalled.

That’s what we found in Women in the Workplace 2018 , a study conducted by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.Org. In the fourth year of our ongoing research, we probe the issues, drawing on data from 279 companies employing more than 13 million people, as well as on a survey of over 64,000 employees and a series of qualitative interviews.

Women are doing their part. For more than 30 years, they’ve been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. 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.

Now companies need to take more decisive action. This starts with treating gender diversity like the business priority it is , from setting targets to holding leaders accountable for results. It requires closing gender gaps in hiring and promotions, especially early in the pipeline when women are most often overlooked. And it means taking bolder steps to create a respectful and inclusive culture so women—and all employees—feel safe and supported at work.

This article presents highlights from the full report and presents six actions that could spark progress.

Revisiting the pipeline

Based on four years of data from 462 companies employing more than 19.6 million people, including the 279 companies participating in this year’s study, two things are clear: one, women remain underrepresented, particularly women of color. Two, companies need to change the way they hire and promote entry and manager-level employees to make real progress.

Women remain underrepresented

Since 2015, the first year of this study , corporate America has made almost no progress improving women’s representation. Women are underrepresented at every level, and women of color are the most underrepresented group of all, lagging behind white men, men of color, and white women (Exhibit 1).

For the fourth year in a row, attrition does not explain the underrepresentation of women. Women and men are leaving their companies at similar rates, and they have similar intentions to remain in the workforce. Over half of all employees plan to stay at their companies for five or more years, and among those who intend to leave, 81 percent say they will continue to work. It’s also worth noting that remarkably few women and men say they plan to leave the workforce to focus on family.

Hiring and promotion will be crucial to progress

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. 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 100 men promoted to manager, 79 women are (Exhibit 2). Largely because of these gender gaps, men end up holding 62 percent of manager positions, while women hold only 38 percent.

This early inequality has a profound impact on the talent pipeline. Starting at the manager level, there are significantly fewer women to promote from within and significantly fewer women at the right experience level to hire in from the outside. So even though hiring and promotion rates improve at more senior levels, women can never catch up—we’re suffering from a “hollow middle.” This should serve as a wake-up call: until companies close the early gaps in hiring and promotion, women will remain underrepresented.

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 are companies start hiring and promoting women and men to manager at equal rates, we should get close to parity in management—48 percent women versus 52 percent men—over the same ten years.

Considering an uneven playing field

Many factors contribute to a lack of gender diversity in the workplace. This year, our report took a closer look at some of them. Beyond issues such as managerial support and access to senior leaders, it’s interesting to look at a few areas that play a role—including everyday discrimination, sexual harassment, and the experience of being the only woman in the room.

Everyday discrimination

Everyday sexism and racism, also known as microaggressions, can take many forms. Some can be subtle, like when someone mistakenly assumes a coworker is more junior than they really are. Some are more explicit, like when someone 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 directed at people with less power, such as women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.

For almost two-thirds of women, microaggressions are a workplace reality (Exhibit 3). Most commonly, women have to provide more evidence of their competence than men and 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.

Lesbian women experience further slights: 71 percent 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 jobs than women who don’t.

Sexual harassment

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 a sexual way. 23 23. It is important to note that the prevalence of sexual harassment reported in this research may be lower than what some working women experience. This survey focuses on full-time employees in the corporate sector versus the full economy, and given the nature of sexual harassment, it is often underreported.

For some women the experience is far more common. Fifty-five percent of women in senior leadership, 48 percent of lesbian women, and 45 percent of women in technical fields report they’ve been sexually harassed. A common thread connects these groups: research has found that women who do not conform to traditional feminine expectations—in this case, by holding authority, not being heterosexual, and working in fields dominated by men—are more often the targets of sexual harassment.

Ninety-eight percent of companies have policies that make it clear sexual harassment is not tolerated, but many employees think their companies are falling short putting policies into practice. Only 62 percent of employees say that in the past year their companies have reaffirmed sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, and a similar number say that they’ve received training or guidance on the topic. Moreover, only 60 percent of employees think a sexual-harassment claim would be fairly investigated and addressed by their company—and just one in three believe it would be addressed quickly.

There are also stark differences in how women and men view their company’s efforts to create a safe and respectful work environment. Only 32 percent of women think that disrespectful behavior toward women is often quickly addressed by their companies, compared with 50 percent of men. Women are far less confident that reporting sexual harassment will lead to a fair investigation. And they are twice as likely as men to say that it would be risky or pointless to report an incident.

These numbers indicate the urgent need for companies to underscore that bad behavior is unacceptable and will not go overlooked. Leaders at all levels should set the tone by publicly stating sexual harassment won’t be tolerated and by modeling inclusive behavior. HR teams should receive detailed training so they know how to thoroughly and compassionately investigate claims of harassment, even if they involve senior leaders. And companies would benefit from putting an audit process in place to ensure that investigations are thorough and sanctions are appropriate.

The ‘Only’ experience

Being “the only one” is still a common experience for women. One in five women say they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work: in other words, they are “Onlys.” This is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles: around 40 percent are Onlys.

Women who are Onlys are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. More than 80 percent are on the receiving end of microaggressions, compared with 64 percent 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 (Exhibit 4). Most notably, women Onlys are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers.

Far fewer men are Onlys—just 7 percent say that they are often the only or one of the only men in the room—and regardless of their race and ethnicity, they face less scrutiny than women Onlys. By and large, White men who are Onlys have a better experience than any other group of Onlys, likely because they are broadly well represented in their company and are a high-status group in society.

Women Onlys have a more difficult time. Because there are so few, women Onlys stand out in a crowd of men. This heightened visibility can make the biases women Onlys face especially pronounced. While they are just one person, they often become a stand-in for all women—their individual successes or failures become a litmus test for what all women are capable of doing. With everyone’s eyes on them, women Onlys can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher performance standards. As a result, they most often feel pressure to perform, on guard, and left out. In contrast, when asked how it feels to be the only man in the room, men Onlys most frequently say they feel included.

Being an Only also affects the way women view their workplace. Compared with 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.

Mapping a path to gender equality

The vast majority of companies say that they’re highly committed to gender and racial diversity—yet the evidence indicates that many are still not treating diversity as the business imperative it is. That’s apparent in the lack of progress in the pipeline over the past four years (Exhibit 5).

Take gender diversity as an example. In contrast with what companies say about their commitment, only around half of all employees think that their company sees gender diversity as a priority and is doing what it takes to make progress. Around 20 percent of employees say that their company’s commitment to gender diversity feels like lip service. And few companies are making a strong business case for gender diversity: while 76 percent of companies have articulated a business case, only 13 percent have taken the critical next step of calculating the positive impact on their business.

There are six actions companies need to take to make progress on gender diversity. Without action on these fronts, the numbers will not move:

We know many companies—especially those that participate in this study—are committed and taking action. But this year’s findings make it clearer than ever that companies need to double down on their efforts. This report includes concrete, evidence-based steps that companies can take right now that will make a major difference. We hope companies seize this opportunity. We can’t get to equality until they do.

Alexis Krivkovich and Irina Starikova are partners in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office; Marie-Claude Nadeau and Kelsey Robinson are partners in the San Francisco office, where Nicole Robinson is a consultant and Lareina Yee is a senior partner.

By Alexis Krivkovich , Kelsey Robinson , Irina Starikova, Rachel Valentino, and Lareina Yee

More companies are committing to gender equality. But progress will remain slow unless we confront blind spots on diversity—particularly regarding women of color, and employee perceptions of the status quo.

Women remain underrepresented at every level in corporate America, despite earning more college degrees than men for 30 years and counting. There is a pressing need to do more, and most organizations realize this: company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high for the third year in a row.

Despite this commitment, progress continues to be too slow—and may even be stalling. Women in the Workplace , a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, looks more deeply at why, drawing on data from 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, as well as on a survey of over 70,000 employees and a series of qualitative interviews. One of the most powerful reasons for the lack of progress is a simple one: we have blind spots when it comes to diversity, and we can’t solve problems that we don’t see or understand clearly.

Many employees think women are well represented in leadership when they see only a few. And because they’ve become comfortable with the status quo, they don’t feel any urgency for change. Further, many men don’t fully grasp the barriers that hold women back at work. As a result, they are less committed to gender diversity, and we can’t get there without them.

Many companies also overlook the realities of women of color, who face the greatest obstacles and receive the least support. When companies take a one-size-fits-all approach to advancing women, women of color end up underserved and left behind. This year we take a deeper look at women of color to better understand the distinct challenges they face, shaped by the intersection of gender and race.

This article presents highlights from the full report and suggests a few core actions that could kick-start progress.

Taking a closer look at the corporate pipeline

As in years past , we examined the corporate pipeline, starting from entry-level professional positions and leading all the way to the C-suite. Two themes emerge this year:

Inequality starts at the very first promotion. This is even more dramatic for women of color. Women remain significantly underrepresented in the corporate pipeline (Exhibit 1). From the outset, fewer women than men are hired at the entry level, despite women being 57 percent of recent college graduates. At every subsequent step, the representation of women further declines, and women of color face an even steeper drop-off at senior levels. As a result, one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and fewer than one in 30 is a woman of color. Moreover, compared with the modest gains women made in prior years, there are signs this year that women’s progress may be stalling .

Women are not leaving their companies at higher rates than men, and very few plan to leave the workforce to focus on family. Compared with men of the same race and ethnicity, women are leaving their companies at similar rates: White women are leaving as frequently as white men, and we see the same pattern among women and men of color. However, there is a large racial gap: people of color are significantly more likely to leave their organizations.

Women and men also have similar intentions to stay in the workforce. Roughly 60 percent of all employees plan to remain at their companies for five or more years. Moreover, among those who are planning to leave, about 80 percent intend to find a job elsewhere and remain in the workforce. Notably, just as many men as women say they’ll leave to focus on family, and the number for both genders is remarkably low: 2 percent or less.

Changing the workplace experience

Based on the results of a survey of more than 70,000 employees from 82 of this year’s participating companies, three trends that disadvantage women are clear:

Women experience a workplace skewed in favor of men. On average, women are promoted at a lower rate than men. The biggest gender gap is at the first step up to manager: entry-level women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers. This gender disparity has a dramatic effect on the pipeline as a whole. If entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the senior vice president and C-suite levels would more than double. And the disparity in promotions is not for lack of desire to advance. Women are just as interested in being promoted as men, and they ask for promotions at comparable rates.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, women are less optimistic about their prospects. They are less likely than men to aspire to be a top executive. And even the women who aspire to be a top executive are significantly less likely to think they’ll become one than men with the same aspiration.

Women of color, particularly Black women, face even greater challenges. The intersection of race and gender shape women’s experiences in meaningful ways. Women of color face more obstacles and a steeper path to leadership, from receiving less support from managers to getting promoted more slowly (Exhibit 2). For instance, although women in general are more likely than men to report they never interact with senior leaders, Black women are the most likely of all to report they never have senior-level contact. This may affect how they view the workplace and their opportunities for advancement. Perhaps because of the challenges they face in the workplace, for example, Black women are also the most interested in going out on their own. Compared with other groups of women, they’re significantly more likely to say they intend to start a business when they leave their current job. And yet: despite facing more pitfalls to advancement, women of color have higher ambitions to be a top executive than White women.

Women and men see the state of women—and the success of gender-diversity efforts—differently. Men are more likely to think the workplace is equitable; women see a workplace that is less fair and offers less support (Exhibit 3). Men think their companies are doing a pretty good job supporting diversity; women see more room for improvement. Indeed, nearly 50 percent of men think women are well represented in leadership in companies where only one in ten senior leaders are women. And perhaps unsurprisingly, men are less committed to gender-diversity efforts , and some even feel that such efforts disadvantage them: 15 percent of men think their gender will make it harder for them to advance, and White men are almost twice as likely as men of color to think this.

A road map to gender equality

Companies need a comprehensive plan for supporting and advancing women . Building on findings from previous years—and incorporating new insights into what top-performing companies are doing—companies should start with these core actions:

Additionally, it is critical that companies understand their particular pain points and tackle them directly. For most if not all companies, this includes addressing the distinct barriers women of color face and getting sufficient buy-in from men. Until they do, companies’ gender-diversity efforts are likely to continue to fall short.

Efforts to achieve equality benefit us all. Diversity leads to stronger business results , as numerous studies have shown. When the most talented people can rise to the top, regardless of what they look like and where they’re from, we all end up winning.

Alexis Krivkovich  and  Irina Starikova are partners in McKinsey’s Silicon Valley office;  Kelsey Robinson is a partner in the San Francisco office, where Rachel Valentino is a consultant, and  Lareina Yee is a senior partner.

In corporate America, women fall behind early and keep losing ground with every step.

More than 75 percent of CEOs include gender equality in their top ten business priorities, but gender outcomes across the largest companies are not changing. Women are less likely to receive the first critical promotion to manager—so far fewer end up on the path to leadership—and they are less likely to be hired into more senior positions. As a result, the higher you look in companies, the fewer women you see.

Women in the Workplace , a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey, elaborates on these patterns, provides some explanations for them, and suggests priorities for leaders seeking to speed the rate of progress. Key findings, based on data from more than 130 companies and over 34,000 men and women, include the following:

The report suggests that we are falling short in translating top-level commitment into a truly inclusive work environment. Even when top executives say the right things, employees don’t think they have a plan for making progress toward gender equality, don’t see those words backed up with action, don’t feel confident calling out gender bias when they see it, and don’t think frontline managers have gotten the message. Only 45 percent of employees, for example, think their companies are doing what it takes to improve diversity outcomes. And even though more than 70 percent of companies say they are committed to diversity, less than a third of their workers see senior leaders held accountable for improving gender outcomes. Faced with these challenges, it’s time to rewrite our gender playbooks so that they do more to change the fabric of everyday work life by encouraging relentless execution, fresh ideas, and courageous personal actions.

This is an edited extract from Women in the Workplace 2016, a study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey. It builds on the Women in the Workplace 2015 report, as well as similar research conducted by McKinsey in 2012 . For more information, visit womenintheworkplace.com .

Women remain underrepresented across organizations—especially at senior levels of leadership—a new survey by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey finds.

From entry level to the C-suite, women are underrepresented at US corporations, less likely to advance than men, and face more barriers to senior leadership. In fact, at the rate of progress of the past three years, it will take more than 100 years for the upper reaches of US corporations to achieve gender parity.

These are the principal findings of Women in the Workplace , a study undertaken by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey to encourage female leadership and gender equality in the workforce. Some 118 companies and nearly 30,000 employees participated in the study, building on a similar effort conducted by McKinsey in 2012. The new study revealed that despite modest improvements, the overarching findings were similar: women remain underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline, with the disparity greatest at senior levels of leadership.

Women in the Workplace found that for numerous reasons, women are simply less likely than men to advance: they experience an uneven playing field, with their odds of advancement lower at every level; there is a persistent leadership gap in the most senior roles; gender diversity is not widely believed to be a priority; and while employee programs designed to help balance work and family are abundant, participation is low among both sexes due to concerns that using them will negatively affect their careers.

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Gender inequality in the workplace: The fight against bias


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The fight against gender discrimination

What does it look like today?

Steps managers can take to eliminate gender inequality in organizations

Steps employees can take to combat gender inequality.

True gender equality is intersectional

The Equal Pay Day , a symbolic event created to highlight wage inequity, fell on March 24 this year. This day shows how far into the year — 83 more days in 2021 — women need to work just to be able to earn the same that men earned in the previous year. Gender inequality in the workplace isn’t limited to unequal wages, either. Women, especially black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women of color, continue to face barriers to move into leadership positions and are likely to face microaggressions — offensive statements or insensitive questions — related to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual identity. Leaders need to close gender gaps in career advancement and eliminate workplace discrimination . There are concrete ways to achieve this ideal — transparent salaries, flexible work options, training opportunities for women, and a focus on well-being and mental health. Employees, too, can play a part in ensuring gender equity on all fronts by becoming allies , speaking up against instances of discrimination, and giving honest feedback to leaders. Before we lay down some tactics to combat gender inequality, let’s take a look at how and when the first steps were taken.

The fight against gender discrimination started in the 19th century

In 1872, Belva Ann Lockwood , an attorney, persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass a law guaranteeing equal pay for women employed as federal employees. Nearly a century later, t he Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, making it law to pay equal wages to men and women in all workplaces. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted equal rights to women in all areas of employment and was amended in 1991 to allow women to sue employers for sexual harassment. Despite the federal law against gender inequality and discrimination, it creeps into workplaces in insidious ways. While some progress has been made, gender inequality continues to persist even today .

Gender inequality in the workplace: What does it look like today?

Gender inequality in the workplace takes many forms — unequal pay, disparity in promotions, incidents of sexual harassment, and racism. Often, it presents itself in more nuanced ways, like fewer opportunities for women who are mothers and a higher incidence of burnout in women.

Unequal pay

Equal pay for men and women is still not a reality. In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned for the same job, and Black and Latina women earned even less . This gender pay gap has persisted over the past years, shrinking by just 8 cents in 25 years. There are multiple reasons to blame, including “sticky floors” that result from traditional social norms that keep women from choosing higher-paying roles and male-dominated industries, unequal access to education, and discrimination.

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Barriers to Promotion

There is a “ broken rung ” at the manager level: “For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 86 women are promoted.” This problem is compounded at higher levels of leadership: fewer women managers means there are fewer candidates to promote to heads of department, directors, and C-suite positions, too. You can see this lack of representation clear as day: 62% of C-suite positions are held by white men, compared with 20% taken up by white women (greater than the 13% occupied by men of color) and a mere 4% by women of color.

gender inequality 1 representation by corporate role

Plus, managers frequently identify candidates for employment opportunities by relying on their personal networks for recommendations, which usually consists of “people like them” (same gender, race, identity ). This further perpetuates the imbalance in representation.

Bias against mothers

Mothers, and women of child-bearing age, are less likely to receive a callback from hiring managers, even when their résumés are identical to the résumés of male applicants or childless women. This points to gender biases rooted in the “work/family narrative,” which views women through the caregiver/mother lens. The (erroneous) conclusion is that their devotion to family and childcare makes them less committed and unable to put in long hours like their male counterparts, especially at high-level jobs. The pandemic’s “gender effect” dealt a further blow, driving nearly 2 million women , especially mothers with young children, to consider downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce.

Higher burnout in women

Research shows that more women than men, especially in higher-up positions, are burned out and dealing with constant stress in the work environment. The pandemic nearly doubled the burnout gap between men and women. This makes women more prone to accepting “accommodations” like part-time work or internal roles that further derail their careers and contribute to gender inequality.


Incidents of sexual harassment

Thirty-five percent of women in the U.S. experience sexual harassment at some point during their careers: a sign that sexism is overlooked in the workplace. Sexual harassment could also be a direct side effect of disparity in pay and promotions. Following the #MeToo movement that started in October 2017, incidents of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention declined . But there has been a sharp increase in hostility towards women — a survey uncovered that gender harassment (sexist remarks and inappropriate stories from male colleagues) spiked to 92% in 2018, from 76% in 2016.

Experiences in racism

Compared to white women, women of color and women with marginalized identities face a higher rate of disrespectful and “othering” microaggressions like being questioned or interrupted. Women of color also do not have active allies at work. White employees think of themselves as allies to women of color, but less than half actually take even basic actions like calling out bias or rallying for new opportunities for women of color. Often, this is because white "allies" and women of color have very different ideas of what’s helpful.


According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 , none of us will see gender equality during our lifetimes. Before the pandemic, the report estimated it would take us 99.5 years to achieve gender parity. The Covid-19 pandemic set us back by a whole generation — the 2021 report states that the gender gap will not close for 135.6 years because it impacted women (especially mothers, black women, and senior women) harder than men. However, these predictions are based on the current state of gender inequality. We can start making a meaningful impact now to bridge the gap:

1. Educate employees on unconscious gender bias

Everyone can have unconscious biases and prejudices about people or groups. Offer implicit bias training through the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to managers to make them aware of these hidden biases towards minorities so that they can actively avoid discriminatory behavior and make more informed decisions to promote gender equality.

2. Appoint diverse interviewers and implement longer shortlists to hire more women in top positions

Research shows that an extended shortlist of candidates for open positions creates more gender diversity because it pushes managers to think beyond the gender stereotypes associated with a role. Train Human Resources managers on how to make these types of longer shortlists when hiring, especially for male-dominated roles, so that more women get recruited in top positions. Take steps to ensure interviewer diversity when reviewing résumés and conducting interviews. Research shows that women are more attracted to roles when they see that the interviewer is a woman.

3. Conduct an audit and make salaries transparent

Conduct a company-wide audit to ensure that men and women in the same roles get paid equally. Use the findings to adjust salaries and close any gender wage gaps . In 2013, Buffer adopted complete transparency and disclosed all salaries . As a result, their job applications rose from 1,263 in the 30 days before the announcement to 2,886 in the next month, expanding the talent pool.

4. Give employees the flexibility to work when and where works for them

The pandemic has proven that remote work is equally, if not more, productive . Provide flexibility in when and where employees can work. For women, this flexibility in work hours can prove to be a “critical enabler” of retention in the workforce because it allows them to maintain a work-life balance. However, if your organization follows a hybrid model, beware of falling prey to presenteeism , where men who choose to go to an office may be more ‘visible’ at work and therefore disproportionately rewarded.

5. Provide development opportunities to enable women to transition to higher-skilled roles

Provide women with opportunities to learn new skills and become more tech-savvy. Between 40 million and 160 million women globally are estimated to transition to higher-skilled jobs by 2030, which could lead them to more productive and better-paying work. Prioritizing women’s advancement has many benefits for organizations, too, including high revenue growth, more innovation, and increased customer satisfaction.

6. Empower women through coaching sessions

Women are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and coaching empowers them to stay and advance in the workforce. But there is a gender gap in access to coaching , too. Provide women with regular coaching sessions so they can build skills and develop the mindsets they need to thrive, especially in leadership roles. BetterUp Labs coached 440 women across different organizations and found that the coaching sessions helped women achieve giant strides in self-awareness, inclusive leadership , and overall employee experience.

7. Provide resources to improve well-being and mental health

At any given time, 55% of the workforce is languishing . Make mental fitness part of the company culture by modeling empathy and training managers to be more empathetic. Offer personalized support to meet women where they are at and help them grow in their careers .

8. Establish mentor-mentee relationships

Give employees scheduled time to participate in mentoring programs . Mentoring programs benefit the mentor as much as the mentee, according to a recent study . Provide opportunities for women to take up mentoring positions because it helps them see themselves as leaders and role models. There’s another benefit when women mentor men — it helps to eliminate gender bias .

9. Offer at least 4 months for paid parental leave

Paid time off to nurture a new child has immense health and career benefits. Establish generous policies for maternity leave, with a minimum of four months . Provide separate parental leave for fathers, like Sweden and Iceland , to encourage men to take time off and share in household responsibilities as well as let women back into the workforce.

Employees, too, can play an active role in advancing gender equality in their workplaces. Individuals who are proactive at work help in creating a better future and prevent the recurrence of existing problems.

1. Participate in DEIB initiatives at your organization

DEIB initiatives benefit everyone in the workplace. When you participate in DEIB initiatives , you can bring your own experience and use it to promote change. Even if you are not part of an underrepresented group, using your voice to help others who may be facing barriers helps you grow too .

2. Call out instances of gender discrimination or biases

Just like the #MeToo movement started with one instance of speaking out against sexual harassment, taking a stand even if you are alone can bring about lasting change and empower others to speak up.

3. Join or build a women’s Employee Resource Group

ERG groups help develop internal leaders, educate employees, and have a positive impact on retention. Join or create an ERG to help build psychologically safe spaces for women, women with disabilities, women of color, and LGBTQ+ women.

4. Become a mentor to women and women of color

Your lived experiences are far more valuable and truthful than any other resources provided to other women in the workforce. Use them to share lessons while mentoring women.

5. Provide honest feedback to leaders on their gender inequality initiatives

Employee feedback on initiatives around advancing gender equality can be a driver of change. Be honest with your employers about what’s working and what’s not.

We won't achieve true gender equality until it is intersectional

“All inequality is not created equal,” Kimberlé Crenshaw said, pointing to the fact that varied and overlapping identities compound experiences of discrimination. Some women experience discrimination based on their gender, while other women may face, in addition to gender, inequalities arising from race, ability, sexual orientation, caste, and class. Even Equal Pay Day is not equal for all women : white women may have had to work until March 24, 2021, to make as much as their male counterparts did in 2020, but Black women would have to work until August 3, 2021, to earn what men did in 2020, and Latina women, until October 21, 2021. Until workplaces acknowledge these complex layers and make systemic changes, gender equality will remain a distant dream. Learn how BetterUp can help your organization support women and underrepresented groups and help change behavior and culture across the organization.

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Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

Women in the workplace: The millenary fight against gender bias

Superhero-ines: 3 skills women use to conquer obstacles at work, what gender inclusive means, and why your use of pronouns matters, work has changed in countless ways, but gender bias persists, what’s the deal with gender pronouns why language matters, defining the gender gap in coaching: what it is and how to fix it, many working parents feel guilt, but some groups feel it more than others, managers say men and women differ in these five areas: is it true, how performance reviews can reinforce gender bias: 5 steps to avoid it, stay connected with betterup, get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research..

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Patterns of gender equality at workplaces and psychological distress


Research in the field of occupational health often uses a risk factor approach which has been criticized by feminist researchers for not considering the combination of many different variables that are at play simultaneously. To overcome this shortcoming this study aims to identify patterns of gender equality at workplaces and to investigate how these patterns are associated with psychological distress. Questionnaire data from the Northern Swedish Cohort (n = 715) have been analysed and supplemented with register data about the participants' workplaces. The register data were used to create gender equality indicators of women/men ratios of number of employees, educational level, salary and parental leave. Cluster analysis was used to identify patterns of gender equality at the workplaces. Differences in psychological distress between the clusters were analysed by chi-square test and logistic regression analyses, adjusting for individual socio-demographics and previous psychological distress. The cluster analysis resulted in six distinctive clusters with different patterns of gender equality at the workplaces that were associated to psychological distress for women but not for men. For women the highest odds of psychological distress was found on traditionally gender unequal workplaces. The lowest overall occurrence of psychological distress as well as same occurrence for women and men was found on the most gender equal workplaces. The results from this study support the convergence hypothesis as gender equality at the workplace does not only relate to better mental health for women, but also more similar occurrence of mental ill-health between women and men. This study highlights the importance of utilizing a multidimensional view of gender equality to understand its association to health outcomes. Health policies need to consider gender equality at the workplace level as a social determinant of health that is of importance for reducing differences in health outcomes for women and men.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Figure 1. Sample procedure.

Figure 2. Gender equality patterns for each…

Figure 2. Gender equality patterns for each cluster with mean scores on each gender equality…

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