How to Address Workplace Gender Bias

A new study finds that women are often cut off from the management pipeline early. The fix requires some data gathering and rethinking promotions.

Good news first: There’s been some genuine traction in efforts to help women gain access to the C-suite. According to the latest Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, 28 percent of U.S. corporate C-suite roles are occupied by women, an 11-point jump from 2015, when the organizations began their annual survey.

OK, that’s more like good–ish news; 28 percent isn’t anybody’s idea of parity, and the percentage of women of color in those top roles is still abysmal, at 6 percent. Still, it’s progress. What stands in the way of better, faster progress?

Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men are hired and promoted based on future potential.

According to the report, much of the problem has to do with what’s going on at the other end of the employer spectrum. Too often, women encounter a “broken rung” that prevents them from being promoted beyond entry-level or low-level managerial positions. And even reaching those levels can require more effort for women than men, the report says: “Women are often hired and promoted based on past accomplishments, while men are hired and promoted based on future potential.” 

That means the biases intensify as you look further up the ladder: Men occupy 60 percent of managerial positions and 71 percent of C-suite roles. 

The report attacks the notion that this is a function of women being relatively less ambitious, noting that women ask for promotions as often as men do. As McKinsey senior partner Lareina Yee told CBS News in a report on the survey, “We don’t face a constraint on ambition—we face a constraint on opportunity.” 

To address this gap, organizations need a data-driven plan. The LeanIn.org report recommends that organizations conduct a thorough accounting of who is recommended for and receives promotions, a process that “enables employers to identify and address the obstacles faced by women of color, and…identify otherwise invisible gaps and refine their promotions processes.” Aggregate data isn’t enough in this case, I’d add: Many organizations (including associations) have departments with reputations as “boys’ clubs” (i.e., IT) and ones that have higher percentages of women or people of color with limited opportunities for advancement (i.e., customer service). Improvement in overall percentages may not mean you’ve addressed more systemic biases.

In addition, organizations need to make concerted efforts to “de-bias” performance reviews. Middle managers have been saddled with plenty of duties since the pandemic, and have a more complex role now. But the fact that they are more empowered with lower-level employees means there’s an opportunity for them to become change agents in the makeup of an organization. That only works, though, if they’re trained up on expectations; as the report says, consider “seasonal [anti-bias] refreshers” on the subject. A one-hour webinar won’t quite cut it. 

If you need some motivation on this front, consider another point: Employees notice when you’re not doing it. The report notes a wide gap between what employers say they’re doing in terms of equitable promotion, and what employees see. (For instance, 83 percent of employers say they have “clear and consistent criteria for evaluating performance”; only 43 percent of employees agree.) For your organization to attract and promote the best people in an equitable environment, clear eyes and determined effort are essential.


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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!