The Realities (and Myths) Hindering Women in the Workplace

Image of a women in an office setting. The closeup photo features her face with a frustrated expression and her hands on framing her face.

The Four Things You Need to Know – Flexibility, Attitudes, the Broken Rung, and Microaggressions

Every year, I anticipate reports like the McKinsey & Company and Lean Women in the Workplace Report with a mixture of hopefulness and deep frustration

. Frankly, it always seems to be a “good news, bad news” scenario with every step forward tempered by that “two steps back” feeling. Meanwhile, Gen Z women entering the workforce are scratching their heads and asking, “Is this really still a thing?” Unfortunately, yes.

This year’s report shared the good news that since 2015, the number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17 to 28 percent, and the representation of women at the VP and SVP levels has also improved significantly. The bad news? Women—and especially women of color—remain underrepresented across the corporate pipeline, making the increase in the C-Suite a fragile gain that could prove unsustainable in the long run.

Let’s take a quick look at the four myths the report busted and talk about solutions. Two of them are related to flexibility at work, which has to do more with having control over when we do our work over where we do it.

Myth: Women are becoming less ambitious

Reality: Women are more ambitious than before the pandemic—and flexibility is fueling that ambition

Myth: It’s mostly women who want— and benefit from—flexible work

Reality: Men and women see flexibility as a “top 3” employee benefit and critical to their company’s success

In my article When Tops Where: Why Inflexible Organizations Risk Losing Women – YWomen, I highlighted a new report from Deloitte revealing that inflexible work hours are driving more women to leave their jobs than office location policies. While the option to work remotely is still desired by many, schedule flexibility is even more important. McKinsey & Company found that workplace flexibility, first experienced during the pandemic, is actually fueling women’s ambitions.

“The pandemic showed women that a new model of balancing work and life was possible. Now, few want to return to the way things were. Most women are taking more steps to prioritize their personal lives, but at no cost to their ambition—they remain just as committed to their careers, and just as interested in advancing, as women who aren’t. These women are defying the outdated notion that work and life are incompatible—and that one comes at the expense of the other.” — Women in the Workplace, 2023

As I noted in my article, inflexible organizations risk losing women. The research backs up this notion. Women and men are just as ambitious, but work flexibility allows women to pursue their ambitions even more strongly than before by demonstrating what is possible. Companies ignore this at their peril.

“One in 5 women say flexibility has helped them stay at their organization or avoid reducing their hours. A large number of women who work hybrid or remotely point to feeling less fatigued and burned out as a primary benefit. And a majority of women report having more focused time to get their work done when they work remotely.” — Women in the Workplace, 2023

And it’s not just women who say they benefit from flexible work. The report found that a vast majority of employees—including men—say that opportunities to have control over their schedules are top company benefits, second only to healthcare!

“Half of women and a third of men point to ‘offering significant flexibility in when and where employees work’ as a top-three factor in their company’s future success. As workplace flexibility transforms from a nice-to-have for some employees to a crucial benefit for most, women continue to value it more. This is likely because they still do a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work.”— Women in the Workplace, 2023

Again, organizations who overlook that flexible work is in the top 3 benefits that your employees are looking for do it at their own expense.

The next two myths outlined in the 2023 report look at the obstacles that hinder how women navigate and thrive in the workplace. The first looks at the broken rung and how fewer women are advanced from an entry-level position into management. And the second looks at microaggressions and how they impact working conditions.

Myth: The “glass ceiling” is often cited as the largest obstacle to women’s advancement.

Reality: For the ninth consecutive year, women’s biggest hurdle to advancement is the “broken rung” at the first critical step up to manager.

This year the study found that “for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, 87 women were promoted. And this gap is trending the wrong way for women of color: this year, 73 women of color were promoted to manager for every 100 men, down from 82 women of color last year. As a result of this broken rung, women fall behind and can’t catch up.”

In 2020, Amanda Hammett and I wrote a white paper focused on Women + The Broken Rung, which noted that the lack of a pathway from lower visibility roles to the corner office continues to create a leaky pipeline to the C-suite. It is imperative for organizations to focus on the promotion to first-level manager roles, as this is where the gap begins in the career ladder.

Fixing the broken rung will require organizations to address several biases baked into their processes. It’s been well documented that women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men are hired and promoted based on future potential. This thinking is particularly unfair since women early in their careers have shorter track records and similar work experiences relative to their male peers, and performance bias can especially disadvantage them at the first promotion to manager.

Myth: Microaggressions have a “micro” impact.

Reality: In reality, microaggressions have a large and lasting impact on women’s careers and well-being.

Microaggressions signal disrespect. Full stop. Microaggressions cause stress and can negatively impact women’s careers and health. Left unchecked, microaggressions can create a toxic work environment that impacts morale, employee engagement, psychological safety and is often stated as a reason for considering leaving the company.

As Deepa Purushothaman posted on Linkedin, “We need to create work cultures where microaggressions don’t slip by without being checked and where the people experiencing these instances have come to accept them as normal parts of being in a corporate environment.”

There are many resources and tools out there that help build allyship skills and reduce microaggressions including the YWomen Creating Gender Advocates virtual series and work of  Workplace Allies David Smith and Brad Johnson, and Karen Catlin.

Given the impact of microaggressions in the workplace, however, in addition to skills building, organizations need to take a firm position to address toxic leadership behaviors. In a recent SHRM article, Paul Falcone suggests, “People who exhibit microaggression or passive-aggressive behavior in the workplace are not doing so because they feel powerful. Instead, they typically feel threatened, vulnerable, and weak. They need a better way to achieve their objectives and find balance, and a management intervention with the individual’s supervisor and HR in the same room is a great place to start. It draws a line in the sand that delineates a new beginning and creates an important record should the problem continue. It also resets expectations and emphasizes the consequences involved so the individual leader sees the personal benefit of changing their ways.”

How is your organization going to interpret the McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org’s Women in the Workplace 2023 findings? As you gather with your BRG team to plan for 2024 consider discussing these questions:

  • Which of the findings stood out for you?
  • Which findings impact your organization’s 2024 goals most directly?
  • What can your group do to address that area in 2024?
  • Where can you (personally and collectively) make the greatest impact?

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Image: Pexels/Mizuno K