C-Suite Gender Bias? Take it to the C-Suite.

We're a long way from gender equality in the office. But a new study suggests more women are pressing the question to the people who can change things.

Once again, the news about women and workplace compensation and C-suite representation isn’t good. But there are hints that the workplace is starting to listen.

Last week, LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. released their annual “Women in the Workplace” study, which looks at unequal treatment at corporate America in terms of pay, executive positions, and general treatment at the office. As LeanIn.org founder Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the heels of the report, women hold less than 30 percent of senior positions, and only 48 percent of women report being in line for C-suite roles, compared to 67 percent for men. (Perhaps needless to say, the environment for women of color tends to be worse.)

The situation isn’t much better at nonprofitdom in general, or associations in particular. The latest GuideStar Nonprofit Compensation report notes that while women are taking on more leadership roles at nonprofits, the executive pay gap still persists—up to 23 percent at organizations of $25 million or more. The 2014-15 ASAE Association Compensation and Benefits Study reports a male-female CEO pay gap of 9.5 percent across the industry, and associations have historically lagged when it comes to C-suite presence and board representation.

Women are 30 percent more likely than men to be called “bossy” for asking for raises or promotions.

Familiar stats like these have prompted the emergence of Lean In circles at organizations, including associations. Those have always struck me as a great start, but an incomplete effort—much of the problem is the set of cultural assumptions that come along with women seeking to earn their fair share of pay and respect in the office, and the (usually male) leaders at organizations need to see the point of that circle, even if they’re not active participants. That’s why the latest study from Sandberg’s group is heartening: It makes the case for pressing the issue.

According to the report, women are asking for raises and promotions in the workplace as much as men are, which is good news. The bad news is that they’re punished more often for it: They’re 30 percent more likely than men to receive feedback that they’re “intimidating,” “aggressive,” and “bossy.” This has as negative impact all the way down the ladder: “At every level,” write the study’s authors, “women are less interested in becoming a top executive, and those who do want a top spot are less confident they’ll get there.”

So what’s the upside in any of that? Sunlight makes the best disinfectant, the line goes, and the best way to begin to address the problem with gender bias is to acknowledge it—in front of the people who are directly empowered to do something about it. Sandberg begins her WSJ op-ed with the story of a film director who began her pitch by saying, “I just want to say up front that I’m going to negotiate, and the research shows that you’re going to like me less when I do.”

“She came up with a solution: Call out the bias before it could surface,” Sandberg writes. “It worked.”

I know—it’s not that simple, not even a little. If you need proof of that: Pay a visit, if you dare, to the Superfund site that is the comment thread to Sandberg’s article, where even the rare “sensible” responses are rooted in a hard-wired refusal to believe that the problem under discussion actually exists. “All these articles fail to address the tremendous wins women have as entrepreneurs,” one writes, as if those successes eliminated a systemic problem. “One way [gender equality] will ever happen: If they start companies at the same rate as men do,” writes another, as if the status quo were acceptable, or as if this were women’s problem to fix alone.

But take heart: There’s a good chance that America’s C-suite occupants are a little too busy to be trolling newspaper comment threads. Also, the Lean In report says more women are being promoted into middle and senior management positions, and more businesses are at least talking formally about gender equality. Ultimately, an appeal to fairness should get a fair hearing at any reasonable workplace, and the study makes the importance of listening for senior staff a top priority: “Senior leaders have an important role to play, from talking more often and openly about gender diversity to modeling their commitment in their everyday actions,” the study’s author’s write. “Although 62 percent of senior leaders say that gender diversity is an important personal priority, only 28 percent of employees say senior leaders regularly encourage a candid, open dialogue on the topic.”

Upping that second number won’t magically fix the problem. But it helps clear the path to its solution.

What does your organization do to promote transparency about gender diversity among your employees? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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