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SHRM Releases 'Women in Leadership: Unequal Access on the Journey to the Top'

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — In a report released today titled "Women in Leadership: Unequal Access on the Journey to the Top," SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management) shares new research that shows women, especially women of color, are more likely than men to encounter roadblocks to leadership roles in their organizations.

For example, female managers of color are five times more likely (21 percent) than their white female counterparts (four percent) to say they have quit a job after being overlooked for a new leadership opportunity at work.

The research shows women become increasingly disillusioned about equal access as they move up the ladder. While men are more likely to feel included and taken seriously as a leader, women do not experience this same boost.

"As we approach International Women's Day on March 8, it's important to emphasize that organizations with a higher proportion of women in leadership positions experience improved business outcomes, including greater innovation and productivity," said SHRM Chief of Staff and Head of Government Affairs Emily M. Dickens. "Yet women are still underrepresented in the C-suite. In a climate where it's harder than ever to source and retain talent, it's imperative that business leaders take a closer look at the gender gaps that exist across their organizations to see that every employee has the opportunity to realize their full potential."

To better understand the challenges that women face as they seek to advance in the workplace, SHRM surveyed HR professionals, individual contributors and managers from across the economy, finding that women report less tangible support from managers, reduced access to opportunities for promotion and increased challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are key findings from the report:

  • Female managers (55 percent) are more likely than their male counterparts (42 percent) to aspire to a higher-level role because they think they would be good at it.
  • Only 61 percent of women say that their manager encourages them to grow their career compared to 71 percent of men.
  • Female managers are less likely than male managers to say employees in their organization are made aware of internal job openings (78 percent versus 86 percent).
  • Female managers are less likely than their male counterparts to have reached their current role by being promoted internally (40 percent versus 48 percent).
  • As women move from individual contributors to managers, they become more likely to believe women in their organization are given fewer opportunities for upward career growth than men (24 percent versus 37 percent).
  • White female managers (65 percent), and especially female managers of color (57 percent), are less likely to feel included in key networks at their organization than male managers of color (68 percent) and white male managers (73 percent).
  • Female managers of color (56 percent) are much less likely to feel they can talk about their personal life with others at work without feeling judged than white female managers (70 percent), male managers of color (72 percent) and white male managers (79 percent).
  • Female managers with caregiving responsibilities (35 percent) are more likely to have experienced a pandemic-related career setback than their male counterparts (26 percent).
  • Only half (52 percent) of HR professionals believe that senior leaders in their organization are held accountable for ensuring male and female employees have equitable access to career paths or opportunities that lead to leadership roles.

 "Women in Leadership: Unequal Access on the Journey to the Top" makes several recommendations for employers, including "returnship" programs to connect with women who left the workforce during the pandemic. These programs help women re-enter roles that are better aligned with their experience and engage them in ways consistent with their goals.

The survey of workers was fielded June 29-July 14, 2021, using the AmeriSpeak Panel, NORC at the University of Chicago's nationally representative, probability-based panel. Online interviews were conducted with 1,017 individual contributors and 1,038 managers. Data were weighted to reflect the population of U.S. working adults.

The survey of HR professionals was fielded electronically to a random sample of HR professionals from the active SHRM membership June 10-July 20, 2021. In total, 1,094 HR professionals participated in the survey. Academics, students, consultants and retired HR professionals were excluded. Respondents represented organizations of all sizes in a wide variety of industries across the United States.

About SHRM

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, creates better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. As the voice of all things work, workers and the workplace, SHRM is the foremost expert, convener and thought leader on issues impacting today's evolving workplaces. With 300,000+ HR and business executive members in 165 countries, SHRM impacts the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally. Learn more at and on Twitter @SHRM. 


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