Gender bias could make it harder for women to become CEO, according to a recent study

According to a report by McKinsey, only 72 women were promoted to manager for every 100 men promoted. 10'000 Hours/Getty Images
  • Although progress has been made to increase the number of women at the top of the corporate pipeline, there is still a long way to go.
  • A recent McKinsey & Company report surveyed 329 companies employing more than 13 million people about women in the workplace.
  • In 2019, women only made up 21% of executives.
  • Even though women and men seem to ask for promotions at the same rate, women are still being promoted less than men, and that disparity could be due to gender bias, according to McKinsey.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Even though more women have risen to the C-suite at large corporations in recent years, women are still promoted less often than men to the highest jobs.

One of the main reasons women are less likely than men to be promoted to CEO boils down to unconscious bias, and it manifests itself in a number of noteworthy ways.

As research and strategy development nonprofit Catalyst reports, women currently hold only 30 — or 6% — of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies.Advertisement

According to a 2019 report by McKinsey & Company and Lean In surveying 329 companies employing more than 13 million people, more companies have higher numbers of female C-level executives than in previous years. From 2015 to 2019, there has been a 15 percentage point increase in the number of companies who have at least three women in their C-suite, up to 44% in 2019. However, 35% of companies in 2019 had one female C-level executive or none at all.

One interesting takeaway from the results is that women are underrepresented at every level, not just the top tiers. For instance, 62% of managers and 51% of entry-level workers were men in 2019.

Women of color are even further underrepresented. In 2019, women of color made up 4% of C-level executives, 5% of senior vice presidents, and 7% of vice presidents.
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The following graphic shows the share of women and men at each corporate position:

Business Insider/Shayanne Gal/Skye Gould
As study co-author Alexis Krivkovich told Mic during the release of a previous McKinsey report, "I certainly anticipated that the early years would be most even [between men and women], but what the data shows is the reverse — and that has implications for the rest of a woman's career." Women hold so few executive level positions because fewer of them end up on the path to leadership, and this pattern begins with the very first promotion to managerial positions. According to the 2019 report, for every 100 men promoted to the manager level, only 72 women were promoted. One reason, the authors note, could be due to gender bias.Advertisement

"Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men may be hired and promoted based on future potential," the authors wrote.

The authors propose giving unconscious bias training for employees who conduct performance reviews. That training could help improve the lack of women moving up to manager and eventually further up the corporate pipeline.

"There is also compelling evidence that this training works: In companies with smaller gender disparities in representation, half of employees received unconscious bias training in the past year, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren't making progress closing these gaps," the authors wrote.Advertisement

The reason for this disparity is not that women aren't negotiating — in fact, women negotiate for promotions and raises more often than men do. The hard truth is that, when women negotiate, people like them less for it.

According to the 2016 McKinsey study, women who negotiate are 30% more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are "intimidating," "too aggressive," or "bossy" — and they are 67% more likely than women who don't negotiate at all to receive the same negative feedback.

"The reason for this pushback lies in many of the unconscious assumptions we all hold about women and men," Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and the founder of Lean In, wrote for The Wall Street Journal. She continues:Advertisement

"We expect men to be assertive, look out for themselves, and lobby for more — so there's little downside when they do it. But women must be communal and collaborative, nurturing and giving, focused on the team and not themselves, lest they be viewed as self-absorbed. So when a woman advocates for herself, people often see her unfavorably."

For the 2016 study, McKinsey and Lean In also polled more than 34,000 employees. Less than half of the women surveyed said they felt that their contributions are appropriately valued, compared to 54% of the men; and 33% of women said they felt their gender would make it harder for them to get a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead — 12% of men surveyed said they felt this way.

"At the root of it is unconscious bias," Lean In president Rachel Thomas told Mic. "Women and men tend to overestimate men and underestimate women. History tells us men are leaders, so people have that expectation."Advertisement

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