New “women in the workplace” research zeroes in on early-career obstacles

October 23, 20192 minute read

McKinsey and LeanIn have released results of their fifth annual Women in the Workplace study. The main conclusion is that the biggest obstacle facing women in their rise to top leadership is the “first rung” — moving into a management position.

This year, 329 companies employing more than 13 million people shared their pipeline data or completed a survey of their HR practices. More than 68,500 employees were surveyed on their workplace experience.

An article by Vanessa Fuhrmans in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The First Step is the Steepest,” suggests the study shows that “it’s fairly early in many women’s careers, not later when they fall dramatically behind men in promotions, blowing open a gender gap that then widens every step up the chain.”

The problem is that women are too often overlooked for the manager jobs that are the bridge to more senior leadership roles. These study results suggest that the real attention of people and companies who want to close the gap should be directed toward tackling the gender imbalance in initial promotions into management.

The article quotes Haig Nalbantian, a labor economist who used predictive analytics to chart the number of women being hired and promoted at every level of the organizations he studies. Almost without exception he finds a “flip.” “Sizable numbers of women occupy positions at the bottom of the corporate pyramid, but at the junior and mid-level management levels, men suddenly pull sharply ahead.”

A possible explanation is that women are hired for jobs with limited upward mobility; men get the “hot jobs” that are springboards to bigger roles.

The article then points out several companies that have found ways to counteract the problem – for example, with sponsorships (Bank of America) and help for employees to develop a career plan followed by tracking and intervention with managers, if necessary (Procter & Gamble). These approaches are having an impact. In P&G’s case, “Women hold 47% of all management roles at P&G, up from 44% four years ago.”