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McKinsey and LeanIn's Latest Report on Women Is a Downer

Vivia Chen

November 6, 2019

Women-1209678_1280For five years, McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org have been issuing their annual report on women in the workplace. During those years, women have been urged to lean in—and many did just that. Then, the #MeToo era erupted with a force mightier than many of us could have imagined, toppling the mighty, including leaders in Big Law.

So what’s the upshot of all this on women’s place in the workforce? Practically nothing. Perhaps it takes more than five years to see the impact, but for now women don’t have much to show in the way of progress.

In fact, you might say that the fifth year anniversary report of the McKinsey/Lean In studies is an anticlimax, if not a total downer. (The report looked at data and other information from 600 companies.)

There are some bright spots—sort of. According to the report, there was a 29% jump in the representation of women at the C-suite. That seems like an enormous leap, except that it translates into about one woman for every five executives overall in the C-suite. And yes, that 21% rate for female C-suiters is about the same rate for female equity partners in Big Law. It’s not that the progress is so great but how ridiculously low the measuring point was.

As for women outside of the C-suite, one word comes to mind: Stagnation. A big reason women aren’t making it to the top is what the report calls the “broken rung” phenomenon in which women have difficulty getting past the entry level. The report notes that only 72 women are hired and promoted for every 100 men. (This is analogous to what happens in law firms where women tend to thin out in the more senior ranks.)

The report makes a number of suggestions to improve the situation for women. Among them are setting goals for promoting women, requiring diverse slates for hiring and promotion, training for unconscious bias, establishing clear evaluation criteria and preparing women for leadership. Yada. Yada.

You’ve heard most of those suggestions 100 times before—and they are all good proposals. But here’s the recurring issue: What are the chances that they’ll be implemented in a meaningful way?

Based on my reading of the report, I'd say we’re a long way off. For one thing, women seem to be on a totally different page from men and the HR leaders at their workplace. Here’s what the report says:

Women believe they’re judged by different standards than men. Of women, 40% cited different standards as the issue, while only 14% of men and 32% of HR managers thought so.

Few women believe that there aren’t enough qualified women for promotions. Only 13% of women say a lack of qualified women is the problem, in contrast to 21% men and 45% of HR managers.

Lack of sponsorship is a huge factor holding women back in the opinion of HR managers, but less so for women, and almost negligible for men. Among HR leaders, 47% say lack of sponsorship is the biggest challenge, for women it was 32%, while for men it was just 12%.

My interpretation of all this? Women feel ready for advancement, but the system isn’t promoting them. There’s a fundamental unfairness at work, the women seem to be saying. But that’s not widely shared by the men or the people in control.

One common ground, though, is that very few people now believe women aren’t willing to do what the job requires. Only a tiny percent of women, men and HR managers believe that women aren’t advancing because of their attitude about work. (Only 3% of both women and men, and 1% of HR managers says women aren’t working as hard.)

But here’s what I see as an overarching problem: Companies seem to think that going through the motions of promoting gender equality is enough. The report finds 87% of companies say they “are highly committed to gender diversity.” While the report says it’s “encouraging that so many companies prioritize gender diversity,” it notes that only half of employees are convinced it’s truly a high priority.

Despite these underlying tensions, the report says that “employees are overly optimistic about the state of women,” with some 19% of employees and 11% of HR leaders believing that gender parity has already been reached at the senior level, and 31% of both groups saying that it will be achieved in two to five years.

But here’s the sobering note in the report: Unless the broken rung is fixed, “We are many decades away from reaching parity, if we reach it at all.”

“If we reach it at all”—if that’s not a chiller, I don’t know what is.


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.



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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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