Diversity & Inclusion: Women in the Workplace

By Emily Field


Women are more ambitious than ever, and workplace flexibility is fueling them. Yet despite some hard-fought gains, women’s representation is not keeping pace. That’s according to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey, in partnership with LeanIn.Org.

This is the ninth 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 and Canada. This year, we collected information from 276 participating organizations employing more than ten million people. At these organizations, we surveyed more than 27,000 employees and 270 senior HR leaders, who shared insights on their policies and practices. The report provides an intersectional look at the specific biases and barriers faced by Asian, Black, Latina, and LGBTQ+ women and women with disabilities.

This year’s research reveals some hard-fought gains at the top, with women’s representation in the C-suite at the highest it has ever been. However, with lagging progress in the middle of the pipeline—and a persistent underrepresentation of women of color1—true parity remains painfully out of reach.

The survey debunks four myths about women’s workplace experiences and career advancement. A few of these myths cover old ground, but given the notable lack of progress, they warrant repeating. These include women’s career ambitions, the greatest barrier to their ascent to senior leadership, the effect and extent of microaggressions in the workplace, and women’s appetite for flexible work. We hope highlighting these myths will help companies find a path forward that casts aside outdated thinking once and for all and accelerates progress for women.

The rest of this article summarizes the main findings from the Women in the Workplace 2023 report and provides clear solutions that organizations can implement to make meaningful progress toward gender equality.

State of the pipeline
Over the past nine years, women—and especially women of color—have remained underrepresented across the corporate pipeline (Exhibit 1). However, we see a growing bright spot in senior leadership. Since 2015, the number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17 to 28 percent, and the representation of women at the vice president and senior vice president levels has also improved significantly.

Exhibit 1


These hard-earned gains are encouraging yet fragile: slow progress for women at the manager and director levels—representation has grown only three and four percentage points, respectively—creates a weak middle in the pipeline for employees who represent the vast majority of women in corporate America. And the “Great Breakup” trend we discovered in last year’s survey continues for women at the director level, the group next in line for senior-leadership positions. That is, director-level women are leaving at a higher rate than in past years—and at a notably higher rate than men at the same level. As a result of these two dynamics, there are fewer women in line for top positions.

Moreover, progress for women of color is lagging behind their peers’ progress. At nearly every step in the pipeline, the representation of women of color falls relative to White women and men of the same race and ethnicity. Until companies address this inequity head-on, women of color will remain severely underrepresented in leadership positions—and mostly absent from the C-suite.

Four myths about the state of women at work
This year’s survey reveals the truth about four common myths related to women in the workplace.

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

At every stage of the pipeline, women are as committed to their careers and as interested in being promoted as men. Women and men at the director level—when the C-suite is in closer view—are also equally interested in senior-leadership roles. And young women are especially ambitious. Nine in ten women under the age of 30 want to be promoted to the next level, and three in four aspire to become senior leaders.

Moreover, the pandemic and increased flexibility did not dampen women’s ambitions. Roughly 80 percent of women want to be promoted to the next level, compared with 70 percent in 2019. And the same holds true for men. Women of color are even more ambitious than White women: 88 percent want to be promoted to the next level. Flexibility is allowing women to pursue their ambitions: overall, one in five women say flexibility has helped them stay in their job 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.

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 taking more steps. These women are defying the outdated notion that work and life are incompatible, and that one comes at the expense of the other.

Myth: The biggest barrier to women’s advancement is the ‘glass ceiling’
Reality: The ‘broken rung’ is the greatest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership

For the ninth consecutive year, women face their biggest hurdle at the first critical step up to manager. This year, for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, 87 women were promoted (Exhibit 2). 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.

Exhibit 2


Progress for early-career Black women remains the furthest behind. After rising in 2020 and 2021 to a high of 96 Black women promoted for every 100 men—likely because of heightened focus across corporate America—Black women’s promotion rates have fallen to 2018 levels, with only 54 Black women promoted for every 100 men this year.

While companies are modestly increasing women’s representation at the top, doing so without addressing the broken rung offers only a temporary stopgap. Because of the gender disparity in early promotions, men end up holding 60 percent of manager-level positions in a typical company, while women occupy 40 percent. Since men significantly outnumber women, there are fewer women to promote to senior managers, and the number of women decreases at every subsequent level.

Myth: Microaggressions have a ‘micro’ impact
Reality: Microaggressions have a large and lasting impact on women

Microaggressions are a form of everyday discrimination that is often rooted in bias. They include comments and actions—even subtle ones that are not overtly harmful—that demean or dismiss someone based on their gender, race, or other aspects of their identity. They signal disrespect, cause acute stress, and can negatively impact women’s careers and health.

Years of data show that women experience microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than men: they are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone junior and hear comments on their emotional state (Exhibit 3). For women with traditionally marginalized identities, these slights happen more often and are even more demeaning. As just one example, Asian and Black women are seven times more likely than White women to be confused with someone of the same race and ethnicity.

Exhibit 3


As a result, the workplace is a mental minefield for many women, particularly those with traditionally marginalized identities. Women who experience microaggressions are much less likely to feel psychologically safe, which makes it harder to take risks, propose new ideas, or raise concerns. The stakes feel just too high. On top of this, 78 percent of women who face microaggressions self-shield at work, or adjust the way they look or act in an effort to protect themselves. For example, many women code-switch—or tone down what they say or do—to try to blend in and avoid a negative reaction at work. Black women are more than twice as likely as women overall to code-switch. And LGBTQ+ women are 2.5 times as likely to feel pressure to change their appearance to be perceived as more professional. The stress caused by these dynamics cuts deep.

Women who experience microaggressions—and self-shield to deflect them—are three times more likely to think about quitting their jobs and four times more likely to almost always be burned out. By leaving microaggressions unchecked, companies miss out on everything women have to offer and risk losing talented employees.

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

Most employees say that opportunities to work remotely and have control over their schedules are top company benefits, second only to healthcare (Exhibit 4). Workplace flexibility even ranks above tried-and-true benefits such as parental leave and childcare.

Exhibit 4


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 carry out a disproportionate amount of childcare and household work. Indeed, 38 percent of mothers with young children say that without workplace flexibility, they would have had to leave their company or reduce their work hours.

But it’s not just women or mothers who benefit: hybrid and remote work are delivering important benefits to most employees. Most women and men point to better work–life balance as a primary benefit of hybrid and remote work, and a majority cite less fatigue and burnout (Exhibit 5). And research shows that good work–life balance and low burnout are key to organizational success. Moreover, 83 percent of employees cite the ability to work more efficiently and productively as a primary benefit of working remotely. However, it’s worth noting companies see this differently: only half of HR leaders say employee productivity is a primary benefit of working remotely.

Exhibit 5


For women, hybrid or remote work is about a lot more than flexibility. When women work remotely, they face fewer microaggressions and have higher levels of psychological safety.

Employees who work on-site also see tangible benefits. A majority point to an easier time collaborating and a stronger personal connection to coworkers as the biggest benefits of working on-site—two factors central to employee well-being and effectiveness. However, the culture of on-site work may be falling short. While 77 percent of companies believe a strong organizational culture is a key benefit of on-site work, most employees disagree: only 39 percent of men and 34 percent of women who work on-site say a key benefit is feeling more connected to their organization’s culture.

Not to mention that men benefit disproportionately from on-site work: compared with women who work on-site, men are seven to nine percentage points more likely to be “in the know,” receive the mentorship and sponsorships they need, and have their accomplishments noticed and rewarded.

A majority of organizations have started to formalize their return-to-office policies, motivated by the perceived benefits of on-site work (Exhibit 6). As they do so, they will need to work to ensure everyone can equally reap the benefits of on-site work.

Exhibit 6


Originally Published: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace#/