The XX Factor

Lean In’s Major New Study Busts Myths About Gender in the Workplace

Women are less likely than men to advance in  line roles, which contribute directly to a company’s bottom line—and lead more directly to C-suite positions.


After surveying nearly 30,000 employees at 118 companies, and McKinsey & Company have a whole horde of new stats on gender representation and attitudes toward gender in the workplace.

Let’s get the bad news—or the worst news, since in studies like these, there’s always lots to rage about—out of the way first. Here it is: If the percentage of women in C-suite roles continues to rise at the same rate as it has over the past three years, it will take a full 100 years to achieve gender parity. Happy hump day!

The report, which is worth flipping through for the Lean In stock photos alone, relates some top-line numbers that track what most interested parties already know, or assume they know:

• At each level of the corporate ladder, there’s a lower percentage of women than the level below.

• Nearly everyone, regardless of gender, thought that taking extended family leave would harm their careers.

• Across the board, women were nine times more likely than men to report doing more child care than their partners or spouses, and four times more likely to report doing more chores.

The data suggest a double-bind for women in the choice between line roles, which contribute directly to a company’s bottom line and core functions, and staff-support roles in areas such as human resources and legal departments. Women in staff-support roles are more likely to advance in their departments than those in line roles—and it’s line roles that are more likely overall to lead to C-suite positions, since they provide necessary experience in the company’s main operations. For women who set the uppermost leadership positions in their sights, there’s no clear path to the top.

Some of the report’s findings fly in the face of some conventional wisdom about women in the workplace—for one, the idea that fewer women than men want the top jobs, perhaps because they want to spend more time with their children and families:

• Mothers who took the survey were 15 percent more likely to want a top leadership position than childless women.

• Women were more likely than men to name the stress and pressure of senior leadership roles as their main reason for not pursuing them, while balancing family and work was the biggest concern for men. Senior positions, and what it takes to get them, are perceived to be more stressful for women than for men

• Women of color wanted to be promoted more than white people of any gender: They reported 43 percent more interest in higher-up leadership positions than white women, and 16 percent more than white men. Considering the racial discrepancies at the highest levels of business leadership, it’s possible that straight-up discrimination holds women of color back even more than we thought.

Another myth seemingly busted by this new report: the impact of attrition rates on the gender wage gap. Deloitte, for one, has claimed to have reduced its wage gap by cutting disproportionate attrition rates among woman employees; women who stayed were more likely to be promoted. But the survey shows that women are leaving their jobs at comparable or lower rates than men, and the discrepancy increases at the highest levels: C-suite women are about half as likely as men to leave their companies. Since men negotiate—and receive—higher salaries than women when they start new gigs, staying in one place could limit women to incremental raises that never catch up to the salary bumps of men.

With several pages of recommended strategies and detailed explanations of how gender bias manifests at work, the report is positioned as a way to support business leaders who gun for gender equality in their own companies. But it could be just as useful as a guide for rank-and-file women trying to understand their options and avoid the stumbling blocks of the current corporate landscape. The barrage of stats doesn’t paint a happy picture, but if the working world is going to make any progress in the next 100 years or so, it helps to start with a hard look at the facts.