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Barriers to women’s advancement entrenched, McKinsey & Co. says

Wednesday, April 13, 2011  
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American business needs to bring more women into the workforce and fully develop their skills if they want to sustain productivity, according to a new report by McKinsey & Company. But long-entrenched attitudes and behaviors remain barriers to women reaching their potential.


Despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy, according to "Unlocking the Full Potential of Women,” a report by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, produced for the Wall Street Journal.  


"Overall, this picture has not improved for years,” Barsh and Yee said. "We believe, however, that there is an opportunity to make substantial progress in developing and advancing women on the path to leadership.”


Corporations could substantially boost the odds of achieving gender diversity in top management by increasing the number of women who advance to the vice presidential level.  "We found that more women in middle management roles are focused on leading than their colleagues at the entry level,” the authors concluded. "And they have already demonstrated enough to advance and acquire managerial skills. Moreover, many are younger women with relatively light work/family concerns. If companies can win their loyalty at this stage of their careers, they will be more likely to stay the course. These women are ours to lose.”

Companies have become very good at recruiting women and have introduced mechanisms, such parental leaves, part-time policies and travel-reducing technologies to alleviate work-life constraints. Though substantial barriers remain, interventions at critical career points can have outsized impact, the report concluded.


Embedded mindsets


The authors reviewed more than 100 existing research papers, surveyed 2,500 men and women, and interviewed 30 chief diversity officers and experts to understand the factors that hold women back. They found women don’t opt out of the workforce. Most can’t afford to. However, they do leave specific jobs for others to pursue personal achievement and more money and recognition. In other cases, women hold themselves back not only because of family responsibilities but to pursue greater satisfaction across all parts of their lives.


The report identified several reasons promising female managers remain at their current level or move on to another organization, including: lack of role models, exclusion from the informal networks, and not having a sponsor in upper management to create opportunities.


If they derive meaning from their current jobs, women often prefer to remain where they are -- and that can limit gender diversity in an organization's leadership, according to McKinsey. Women value making a difference and working closely with colleagues, and many don’t want to trade that for the endless meetings and corporate politics they fear at the next management level.


While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face "the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity,” the report concluded. Male and female managers continue to take female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that they can’t handle certain jobs and also discharge family obligations. 


McKinsey found many women hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way, such as waiting to fill in more skills or just waiting to be asked.


"These imbedded mindsets are often institutional as well as individual— and difficult to eradicate,” the authors reported. "A CEO’s personal crusade to change behavior does not scale. A diversity program by itself, no matter how comprehensive, is no match for entrenched beliefs. Targeting behavioral change without mindset shifts generally leads to an early burst of achievement followed by reversion to old ways. Our evidence points to the need for systemic, organizational change.

"Companies that aspire to achieve sustained diversity balance must choose to transform their cultures. Management needs a powerful reason to believe such as the potential competitive and economic advantage from retaining the best talent.”

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