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Women’s workplace potential remains untapped, study finds

Wednesday, May 9, 2012  
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Despite the growing productive power of working women over the last 40 years, the full potential of women in the workplace remains untapped -- and significant barriers to advancement exist, according a report by McKinsey & Co. for The Wall Street Journal Executive Task Force for Women in The Economy.

Creating the conditions to leverage the full potential of women and achieve economic goals is a complex and difficult challenge, and will require transformative culture change, according to "UnLocking The Full Potential of Women at Work” by Joanna Barsh, director of organization practice, and Lareina Yee, principal, of McKinsey & Co.

Despite the sincere efforts of major corporations, the proportion of women falls quickly as you look higher in the corporate hierarchy, Barsh said, and the overall picture has not improved for years. Still, companies have become very good at recruiting women and have introduced mechanisms such as parental leaves, part-time policies and travel-reducing technologies, to keep women in the pipeline.

These types of interventions at critical career points can help women overcome career barriers, the study concluded. A focus on middle management to increase the number of women who advance to the vice-presidential level, for example, would substantially improve the odds of achieving real gender diversity in top management.

"We have found more women in middle management roles are focused on leading [compared to] their colleagues at the entry level,” Barsh said. "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.”

Still, many highly motivated women at middle management levels  -- and higher  -- turn down opportunities for advancement, look for jobs outside the company or leave corporate America altogether, Barsh said. Women don’t opt out of the workforce, the research found; most cannot afford to. They do leave specific jobs for others in pursuit of personal achievement, more money and recognition -- just like men do. Also, they often hold themselves back to pursue greater satisfaction across all parts of their lives, not only to fulfill family responsibilities.

Reasons women choose to remain at their current level or move on to another organization -- despite their confidence and desire to advance -- include lack of role models, exclusion from the informal networks and not having a sponsor in upper management to create opportunities, the study said.

Another phenomenon that limits diversity at the top, Barsh noted, is women electing to remain in jobs if they derive a deep sense of meaning professionally. "More than men, women prize the opportunity to pour their energies into making a difference and working closely with colleagues,” she wrote. "Women don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the next management echelon.”

The most powerful force holding women back, however, is entrenched beliefs, the report concluded. "While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mindsets that limit opportunity. Managers -- male and female -- continue to take viable female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that the woman can’t handle certain jobs and also discharge family obligations. We found that many women, too, hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way -- such as waiting to fill in more skills or just waiting to be asked.”

McKinsey’s research on organizational change found 70 percent of transformation efforts fail. "However, the same research tells us that the transformations that succeed have strong leadership from the top and a comprehensive plan to shift mindsets and behaviors,” Barsh and Yee concluded. "Getting people to think and act differently is one of the most difficult management challenges, but it can be done.”

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