Diversity work has to move beyond the C-suite to drive real change

Companies need to revise hiring process to move gender diversity efforts out of the "nice-to-have" zone.

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Despite more talk about promoting more women, not much has changed over the last five years for women in the workplace, especially for black women and disabled women. 

In the Women in the Workplace report, McKinsey found that corporations have made no progress on hiring more women managers or hiring more black women or Latina women. In the survey of more than 68,500 employees, women reported that gender remains a barrier to advancement and that they still put up with demeaning or disrespectful remarks on a regular basis.

SEE: Transgender employees in tech: Why this "progressive" industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity (TechRepublic cover story)

Women make up 21% of the C-suite in 2019 compared to 17% in 2015, which isa tiny improvement. The other only spot of progress is in working from home, significantly more people can do that now. 

McKinsey's conclusion is stark: "We are many decades away from reaching gender parity at the highest ranks—and may never reach it at all." This is the fifth year for the study.

McKinsey also calls out the fact that all women in the workplace do not have the same experience. In particular, black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship. Companies must directly address the unique challenges that different groups of women face.

What's holding us back?

Men say that the biggest barrier to having an equal number of women and men in management is that there are too few qualified women in the pipeline. Women cite the fact that they are judged by different standards than men. HR leaders say that the problem is that women don't receive as much sponsorship.

McKinsey found that the real problem is that the first rung of the advancement ladder is broken. Men and women are hired for entry level positions at equal rates but not at the first step in moving up: Management jobs. The 2019 report found that:

"For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level, and fewer women becoming managers. Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%."

The manager numbers are worse when race is factored in. For every 100 men promoted to manager level, only 58 black women and only 68 Latina women advance.

McKinsey offers this advice for fixing the broken rung in the advancement ladder:

  • Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management
  • Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions
  • Put evaluators through unconscious bias training
  • Establish clear evaluation criteria
  • Put more women in line for the step up to manager

Making fairness a reality

The study found a disconnect between the qualities HR leaders say they see as crucial for management roles and what employees see as the most important qualities:

"HR leaders are far more likely to say achieving goals, strong leadership, and being good at managing people are the highest priorities. Employees, however, are far more likely to think their organization most values navigating internal politics and being well-liked."

The mismatch of expectations means employees who are up for manager positions may be evaluated on both official and unofficial requirements. To solve this problem, McKinsey recommends clearly communicating what really matters in their organization: Meeting goals and being an effective leader.

McKinsey reports that 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 questions, women are less optimistic than men. 

The study also found that women are still disrespected at work. Black women are most likely to face these kinds of insulting behavior:

  • Having competence questions
  • Being interrupted or spoken over
  • Being mistaken for someone at a much lower level
  • Having demeaning remarks about you or people like you
  • Hearing others' surprise at your language skills or other abilities

SEE: Hiring kit: Chief diversity officer (TechRepublic Premium)

Linking behavior change to bonuses

To move beyond improving optics in the C-suite as the only gender diversity goal, companies must set diversity targets and share diversity metrics at all levels of an organization. McKinsey recommends holding leaders accountable and rewarding them when they make progress:

"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."  

More than half of companies hold senior leaders accountable for progress on gender diversity metrics, up from a little over a third in 2015.

Sodexo found that there was a sharp dropoff of women after entry level positions which meant fewer women in the leadership pipeline. The food service company created a "mentoring circles" program that combined women in entry-level roles and mid-level managers. Sodexo also created a scorecard for managers. For managers and senior leaders, 10% of the annual bonus was tied to the scorecard. Leaders earned points for hitting representation targets and for changing their behavior and processes.

The report is based on five years of data from almost 600 companies. In 2019, McKinsey collected information from 329 participating companies and surveyed surveyed more than 68,500 employees to better understand their day-to-day work experiences.  

Also see

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McKinsey's Women In the Workplace study found that men and women are hired at equal rates for entry level jobs. That changes at the manager level when only 72 women are hired for every 100 men.

Image: McKinsey's Women in the Workplace report