Where Women Fall Behind at Work: The First Step Into Management

par Featured articles licensed from The Wall Street Journal | le 21 October 2019

Well before the glass ceiling, women run into obstacles to advancement. Evening the odds early in their careers would have a huge impact.


Vanessa Fuhrmans – The Wall Street Journal

The conventional narrative of the ambitious woman at work goes something like this: Woman joins the workforce with big dreams. Over the years, she advances in her career alongside male colleagues. Yet on the way to the top, she hits an invisible barrier to the highest corridors of power.

Long before bumping into any glass ceiling, many women run into obstacles trying to grasp the very first rung of the management ladder—and not because they are pausing their careers to raise children—a new, five-year landmark study shows. As a result, it’s early in many women’s careers, not later, when they fall dramatically behind men in promotions, blowing open a gender gap that then widens every step up the chain.

The numbers tell a stark story: Though women and men enter the workforce in roughly equal numbers, men outnumber women nearly 2 to 1 when they reach that first step up—the manager jobs that are the bridge to more senior leadership roles. In real numbers, that will translate to more than one million women across the U.S. corporate landscape getting left behind at the entry level over the next five years as their male peers move on and upward, perpetuating a shortage of women in leadership positions.

Few efforts are likely to remedy the problem as much as tackling the gender imbalance in initial promotions into management, says Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., which co-led the research with LeanIn.Org. If companies in the U.S. continue to make the same, tiny gains in the numbers of women they promote and hire into management every year, it will be another 30 years before the gap between first-level male and female managers closes, McKinsey estimates. But fix that broken bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and companies could reach near-parity all the way up to their top leadership roles within a generation.

Earlier than believed

Those are some of the key findings of the fifth annual Women in the Workplace study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey, one of the most comprehensive examinations to date of the experiences of working women and men. Data from 329 companies with a collective 13 million people on their payrolls (including Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal) suggest the barriers holding women back from equal power and influence in the workplace emerge much earlier than many corporate leaders believe.

Men outnumber women nearly 2 to 1 on the first move up the management ladder. WSJ’s Vanessa Fuhrmans explains how this can hurt women right out of the gate.

“Bias still gets in the way—bias of who you know, who’s like you, or who performs and operates the same way you perform and operate, whose style is more similar,” says Carolyn Tastad, group president of Procter & Gamble’s North American operations. But “we have to find ways to pull all this talent up through the pipeline.” She adds: “The even bigger question is: What can it do for our business?”






The hot jobs

Even among men and women identified as having high potential from the start, women are less likely to get the “hot jobs” that are springboards to bigger roles. In a 2012 study of more than 1,600 M.B.A. graduates by the research and advocacy group Catalyst, men reported leading projects with larger teams and budgets twice the size of women’s. Their work was also more likely to be on the radar of the C-suite.

“When companies ask, ‘What’s the one thing we can do systemically?’ we say, ‘It’s not quotas, it’s not targets,’” says Mr. Nalbantian. “It’s about how do you position women and minorities to succeed in the roles that are likely to lead to higher-level positions.”

Over time, many women come to see a workplace stacked against them. Among the more than 68,500 employees whom McKinsey and Lean In also surveyed from the participating companies, a quarter of women said their gender had played a role in a missed promotion or raise. Even more expected it to make it harder for them to get ahead in the future.

Rebecca Weizenecker sought a promotion at a financial-services firm and asked about her weaknesses. She made a 90-day plan to address them—and got the job. PHOTO: MELISSA GOLDEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The takeaway for some women is that they have to assemble their own career ladder. After working for more than a year in sales at an Atlanta-based financial-services company, Rebecca Weizenecker wanted to vie for a job heading a direct-sales team. Before applying, she went to the hiring manager and asked him to be candid about her strengths and weaknesses. At 24, she lacked experience, he said. She pressed for specifics.

“‘What are the specific gaps, and are we talking 10 years of experience or is this a three-month learning curve?” she says she asked. When he told her it was probably a matter of months rather than years, Ms. Weizenecker put together a 90-day plan that included additional training. Soon after, she landed the job.

“I made it hard for them to say no,” says Ms. Weizenecker, now 29 and vice president of sales and marketing at FundThrough, another financial-technology firm.

Making the call

At Synchrony Financial, where 46% of all managers are women, CEO Margaret Keane says she wanted to build a sturdier bridge from the entry-level jobs in the consumer bank and credit-card issuer’s call centers to the managerial track. Many of those jobs are held by women. “I feel I have as a woman CEO a responsibility in terms of driving the culture,” says Ms. Keane, who began her own career in a bank call center.

One way is a nine-month development program that allows call-center and administrative staff to hone their management skills, such as leading meetings and giving high-ranking executives their elevator pitches, while exploring different career paths across the company. Of the several hundred employees who have completed the program since it began in 2013, more than 250 have been promoted to managerial positions, 60% of them women.

One is 29-year-old TJ Wright, a bank representative who jumped to become an assistant vice president in Synchrony’s consumer-banking operations in Charlotte, N.C., in January. Key to landing it, she says, were a couple of senior executives who sponsored her, championing her for bigger roles. Unlike mentors, who largely offer informal guidance, sponsors open doors to other powerful contacts and advocate for their protégés when big projects or promotions come up—something the McKinsey and Lean In data show is instrumental in propelling the careers of both men and women.

“When I got my new job, I was so excited to tell my sponsors,” Ms. Wright says. “They said, ‘We know, we were in the room having those conversations about you!’ ” Nearly a year into her new role, she has mapped out her next couple of potential moves and hopes to land a promotion to vice president next. “I’ve got to pace myself a little bit,” she says.

The sponsor’s role

At Bank of America, where more than 40% of people in management are women, sponsorships play a critical role in helping women advance, says Cynthia Bowman, head of diversity and inclusion and talent acquisition at the bank. To secure a sponsor, “you’ve got to consistently perform, have a strong brand and deliver. That’s just table stakes,” she says. “But a lot of people do that and might still not move, because they don’t have the right support.”

Up-and-coming women have the chance to be matched to senior players in several ways. Over the past three years, more than 4,100 women have participated in one of the company’s formal career-development programs, through which many get sponsors. The bank estimates many more women have found sponsors through other programs within its various lines of business and regular forums it organizes for them to get facetime with high-level executives

Industry by Industry

Women’s share of employment at each level of selected industries

Source: LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. Women in the Workplace 2019 study of 329 companies

To measure how its efforts are working, Bank of America tracks its workforce data meticulously. At least once a month, senior leaders receive updated scorecards tracking the representation of women at every level. Lower-level managers are also expected to meet certain goals, such as interviewing a diverse slate of candidates for open positions.

Procter & Gamble also takes a granular approach to evening the gender playing field. Women hold 47% of all management roles at P&G, up from 44% four years ago. The consumer-goods giant applies the same rigorous approach that it uses for market research to help employees map their career-development plans. When the company spotted a drop in the share of midlevel female managers, it started tracking their progression earlier and more closely.

“Today we can pull that data, slice it by function, by geography. We can spot weaknesses quickly and whether they might lead to a pipeline deficit,” says Deanna Bass, P&G’s director of global diversity and inclusion.

The individual career plans identify what sorts of experience employees need and are acquiring, and the likely next promotions they have the potential to attain. If someone has been in a job longer than initially mapped, “it allows us to go back to her manager and say, ‘She’s been here several years and hasn’t moved. Can she be promoted?’ ” she says. “The role of the manager is critical to their success.”

Luz Damaris Rosario, who manages a Goya Foods plant, credits an early promotion with lifting her career and giving her exposure to senior executives. PHOTO: JULIA ROBINSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Luz Damaris Rosario, who began working as a chemist at Goya Foods when she was 22 and now oversees one of the company’s largest food-production plants, in Houston, credits an early promotion with catapulting her career. Within two years of joining the company, she was made a laboratory manager, overseeing a team of scientists in a Puerto Rico plant producing canned beans and tomato sauce.

“That promotion empowered me,” she says, adding that it gave her greater access to senior Goya executives and a broader understanding of how the company operates. “It was, ‘The world belongs to me,’ ” she says.

One of those senior leaders, the president of Goya’s Puerto Rico operations at the time, helped pay for her to get an M.B.A. after she told him she hoped to head one of the company’s operations one day. Now, at 56 and with many more promotions under her belt, Ms. Rosario says she advises younger women to stay alert to new roles and look for ways to grow.

“Don’t think you’re competing with your male counterparts,” she says. “Just compete with yourself.”