While many efforts to boost women in business focus on meager numbers in the boardroom and executive suite, a new study shows female workers are at a disadvantage from the first rung of their career ladder.
For every 100 women who get promoted from an entry-level position to manager, 130 men advance, according to the study released Tuesday by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. Women lag behind men at every step, but the gap is largest at the critical point when they first could move into leadership.
“Women are hitting the glass ceiling earlier than people realize,” said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn, a group founded by Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. “Men are off to the races and women are starting to see hurdles right out of the gate.”
The study looked at employee pipelines at 132 companies, including General Motors Co., Visa Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. and Morgan Stanley. It also surveyed 34,000 employees.
Women asked for promotions or raises slightly more frequently than men, and were more likely to be labeled “bossy” or “aggressive” when they did, the study found. Women also got less access to senior leaders than men, less advice on how to improve their work and fewer high-profile assignments.
“Those things start to add up,” Thomas said. “Women progress more slowly, and the higher you look, the fewer women you see.”
One reason may be that as they move up, many women shift from line roles, where they’re responsible for a profit-and-loss statement, to staff positions, such as human resources or information technology. Those jobs are less likely to lead to the CEO suite. It could be that women are nudged into those careers, Thomas said, or that they lack role models in line positions. Women make up less than 5% of the CEOs of the 500 largest U.S. public companies, according to Catalyst, an advocacy group for female executives.
The disparities are most pronounced for women of color, who make up 20% of the U.S. population but just 3% of C-suite positions. While 78% of companies reported that gender diversity was a top 10 priority for their CEO, up from about 56% in 2012, only 55% said racial diversity was a high priority.
But there is some cause for optimism, Thomas said. The study showed a slight increase in the percentage of women at each level compared with a year ago.
Another factor holding women back was partners who failed to share the burden of housework and child rearing, the study said. Among women who share housework equally with their partners, 43% aspired to senior executive jobs. Only 34% of those who did most of the housework wanted the same, the study said.