Commentary / World

Where women see bias, men see a 'pipeline' problem

by Sarah Green Carmichael

Bloomberg

Gender parity at work is still decades away, if it ever comes at all. Why? Part of the problem is that men and women look at the same world and see different things.

Almost half of men (44 percent) say women would be “well represented” at their company if just one in 10 senior leaders were female. Only 22 percent of women agree with that. These findings come from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, via their annual report on women in the workplace, based on a survey of 65,800 people at 329 companies.

And this is actually an improvement, says Alexis Krivkovich, a senior partner at McKinsey’s San Francisco office. In previous years, an even larger share of men thought women were well represented in company leadership — even when company-specific data showed that wasn’t true. And men today are more likely to say gender diversity is a “high personal priority” than they were in 2015.

Yet to the extent that men are becoming more aware that the gender gap at the top is a problem, they still disagree with women about what’s causing it. Men are most likely to say the trouble is “too few qualified women in the pipeline.”

Women point to different causes. Forty percent say women are judged by different standards. (Only 14 percent of men see it that way.) Nineteen percent of women correctly perceive that junior women are less likely than junior men to get that first promotion into management. (Only 7 percent of men see that.) And 32 percent of women say women lack sponsors to champion their work. (Only 12 percent of men agree.)

This last problem is especially troubling for two reasons: First, the scarcity of sponsors for women has been linked with stalled careers in study after study. And second, the men who responded to McKinsey’s survey themselves revealed a real reluctance to sponsor or mentor junior women.

In January 2018, months before the deluge of #MeToo stories began with the New York Times’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein, 46 percent of men said they’d be uncomfortable mentoring a younger female. By March 2019, after the Weinstein revelations, that figure had risen to 60 percent. In fact, they’re now 12 times as likely as they once were to hesitate to have even a one-on-one meeting with a younger female colleague.

Think of that: Senior men don’t think women have a problem finding sponsors to help them win plum assignments and promotions, but they admit to balking at spending any one-on-one time with the women they’re responsible for championing.

“There’s this urban myth that gosh, somehow in this post-MeToo workplace, women have become dangerous or scary,” says David Smith, an associate professor of sociology at the Naval War College and co-author of “Athena Rising,” a book about men who mentor women. “They might just decide to falsely accuse us of sexual harassment. There’s no evidence to support that. As men we need to push back on each other when we hear that.”

And when men refuse to mentor women, those women go without mentors. There aren’t enough senior women to pick up the slack. The result is a workplace in which equally ambitious and, yes, equally qualified women consistently find it tougher to get ahead.

Women and men want promotions, ask for promotions, and ask for raises at nearly identical rates; the difference is that men are much more likely to get them. In fact, the gender gap appears with that first promotion into management: Although half of entry-level employees in corporate America are female, for every 100 men who get promoted to first-line management jobs, only 72 women get through.

This difference can’t be due to qualifications — these are entry-level employees, just a few years out of college. (The same colleges where female students graduate in higher numbers, and score higher GPAs.) Nor can it be due to family responsibilities; many of these workers don’t have children.

It’s not a pipeline problem. Over and over, women are banging their heads on the glass ceiling, but it seems many men don’t even hear the commotion.

Women are twice as likely as men to say that they’ve had to provide extra evidence of their competence — 30 percent of all women report this, and 40 percent of black women. Half of women say they’ve been interrupted or spoken over, while only a third of men have. Only 8 percent of men of all races say colleagues have expressed surprise at their language or other abilities; 26 percent of black women say it’s happened to them.

Our impressions, of course, are shaped by our experiences. One in five women reports being the only woman on her team; for women in senior and technical roles, it’s one in three. Just one in 50 men say the same. Among these “only women,” half say they’ve had to prove their competence or have had their expertise questioned. Roughly 70 percent say they are interrupted, and half say they don’t get credit for their ideas.

These slights may seem trivial, but things like getting credit for your ideas or being seen as an expert are what allow successful employees to advance.

There are plenty of things companies can do to remedy these problems — actions that also make them better places to work. It’s not hype that more diverse companies perform better, or that venture capital firms with more women get better returns. Well-managed companies care about merit, about fairness, and about promoting the best people. If you’re pulling talent from only half the population, your results just aren’t going to be as good.

A reason to feel hopeful: Younger men are much more capable of recognizing bias when they see it. Among people under the age of 30, 41 percent of women and 17 percent of men say they’ve heard or seen bias directed at women in the past year. That’s a gap, but not nearly as wide as the one in the 50-60 age group, where 32 percent of women and just 9 percent of men say they’ve witnessed bias.

That’s why it’s so important for people of all ages to call out bias when they see it. And here’s where men can be especially valuable, because unlike women, they face no penalty for doing so. Another reason younger guys might be expected to help the project of gender equality advance: They’re more likely to be part of a dual-career couple, Krivkovich says, so they have a personal connection to the problem. Smith says it can only help men understand the problem better to hear about it firsthand from a woman they care about: “A lot of times that’s what gets in touch with our sense of fairness and justice.”

It might be just what we need to start seeing the world (almost) the same way.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and a former executive editor at Harvard Business Review.