Hidden Hurdles: Getting to Workplace Gender Equality

Recent data suggest it will take 100 years to achieve gender parity at the highest executive level. We can’t afford to wait that long.

By Henry G. Jackson Oct 27, 2016

Henry G. JacksonOn some of the world’s most visible stages, women appear to be making huge professional strides. This year Hillary Clinton became the first female U.S. presidential nominee, and the U.K. has chosen its second female prime minister. Women are outnumbering men by a 3-to-2 ratio on college campuses, and they have earned more doctoral degrees than men for seven straight years. Even at this year’s Summer Olympics, the U.S. fielded a team of athletes made up of a female majority for the first time.

But reality is different in the executive suite. Among Fortune 500 companies, a mere 27 are run by women. At this rate, according to a new report from McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, it will take more than 100 years to achieve gender parity at the C-suite level.

The gap starts growing early. Women are significantly less likely to get that first critical promotion to manager: For every 100 women who advance, 130 men do, so fewer women wind up on the track that will take them to senior positions. Their representation continues to decline at every career level until they make up just 20 percent of executives. This is not because women are leaving their companies before they can be promoted, as many believe. The attrition rates for women and men in the McKinsey study were about the same.

[SHRM members-only resource: Toolkit—Managing Pay Equity]

As the cover feature in the November issue of HR Magazine points out, the gender gap in pay and promotion falls squarely within HR’s jurisdiction. Certainly, we can deploy programs that help, including offering flextime and paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers and eliminating the practice of asking candidates their salary histories, which perpetuates wage disparities. Companies that are most successful in closing the gender gap in their senior ranks enact supportive policies like these. 

The parity problem goes much deeper, however. Women are still taken less seriously than men in their career ambitions. They are less likely to report they’ve received a challenging assignment or been part of an important development or training opportunity. And although they negotiate for raises and promotions at the same rates as men—a fact that might surprise many of us—they are less likely to get them. 

Women in the workplace need mentors, and this role is most likely filled by other women. By extension, that means fewer of these mentors are senior leaders, so C-suite doors remain closed. HR can and should help employees of both genders build more-diverse professional networks.

Where gender bias is deeply embedded in work culture, it is up to HR to show how gender equity drives better business outcomes and builds lasting success. No profession is better suited for this than our own, where women closed the gap decades ago, including in the C-suite, and now make up the majority of practitioners. 

Clearly, we can’t afford to wait another 100 years. HR must drive organizations to do more than set policy and wait for it to have an effect. We must take the lead to actively dismantle the hurdles that prevent women from taking full advantage of the opportunities to drive the success of their organizations at all levels. It’s good business. 

Henry G. Jackson is the CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. 

Photograph by Cade Martin for HR Magazine.

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