Women are still falling behind at every step of the career ladder. How can organizations make real change?

Women are getting left behind at work while their male counterparts get promoted, and Sandrine Devillard says that’s unlikely to change unless organizations in Canada take some serious action.

“The system is completely unequal almost from the start, and only gets worse as women progress through the talent pipeline. It’s like we are pouring water into a bucket with a big hole in it,” says Sandrine Devillard, Senior Partner at McKinsey Canada.

Devillard points to McKinsey’s 2021 Gender Diversity at Work in Canada study, which analyzed the employer data from 2017 to 2021 of 51 Canada-based companies employing over one million employees across ten industries.

The study found that on average, the same number of men and women are in entry level positions. However, the representation of women drops at the first promotion to manager—only 37 percent of managers at this level are women (9 percent are women of colour) compared to 63 percent who are men.

There’s a steady decline in representation as roles become more senior. At the C-suite level, women represent only 30 percent of positions (6 percent of whom are women of colour) compared to 70 percent who are men. Notably, there were only marginal improvements in representation over the past four years.

As someone who has been studying the challenges women face in the workplace for more than 22 years, Devillard says the findings in the study were “sobering,” with many issues amplified by the pandemic.

“It’s staggering to me that I’m still having these conversations 22 years later and that nothing significant has really changed,” she says.

Sandrine Devillard
Sandrine Devillard, Senior Partner at McKinsey Canada, says that companies should embed diversity, equity, and inclusion into the roles and responsibilities of all employees.
Photo credit: Christinne Muschi
Sandrine Devillard

The devastating impact of bias at work

Devillard notes that there are multiple contributing factors to the gendered imbalance in leadership. One important factor is that women are not promoted at the same rate as men, even at the first level of management. This stems from a multitude of biases, in particular the bias that leaders can have against women of childbearing age. There is a misconception that they will not be as responsive to work responsibilities as men due to caregiving roles in their personal lives. This inaccurate bias can impede early stage promotion for women, which results in a ripple effect all the way to CEO positions.

“There’s also a misconception surrounding leadership style when it comes to men and women,” Devillard says.

“We confuse difference in leadership style with a lack of ability to lead,” she says. “We found that men and women do not use the same leadership styles with the same frequency. For instance, men tend to use a much more individualistic decision-making style, while women tend to use a more participative decision-making style. This can be perceived as women not taking charge or lacking leadership, which is also untrue. Both are effective leadership styles. They are just different.”

We found that corporations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion actually performed better because they attract the best talent.

Sandrine Devillard

The study also showed that while many organizations have expressed an interest in making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) a priority (68 percent), few took any meaningful action to make this a reality (35 percent). Devillard points out that this kind of inaction can have a detrimental effect on business performance.

“We found that corporations that embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion actually performed better because they attract the best talent,” she says. An organization with a reputation for equitable hiring practices is seen as a workplace of choice for potential employees. Plus, in a tight labour market, tapping into a wider talent pool just makes sense.

“More diverse leadership (and leadership styles) also helps organizations make better business decisions,” Devillard adds.

Burnout and microaggressions

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing many of the country’s leaders, Devillard notes. Women, in particular, had to take on more responsibilities at home and at work, leading to overwork and burnout.

According to the study, senior-level women were twice as likely (31 percent) as senior-level men (17 percent) to consider downshifting their jobs or leaving the workplace completely. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of women expressed a desire to take on an executive leadership role, citing lack of interest and potential burnout, compared to 37 percent of men.

“Meanwhile, toxic workplaces rife with microaggressions toward women and people of colour continue to be a significant barrier to women’s advancement,” notes Devillard. The study found that 60 percent of women in senior leadership roles and 70 percent of women of colour reported experiencing microaggressions at work in the last year.

Repairing “the broken rung”

So, with the status quo clearly not delivering meaningful progress, what can be done to close the workplace gender gap?

“First, a change in approach is in order,” Devillard says. “Talent pipeline failure and its impact on DE&I should be treated like the significant business problems they are,” she says. “Organizations need to tackle them the same way they take on any significant business challenge, such as increasing revenue or global expansion.”

“It needs to be looked at as a large change program, but [that’s often not] the way it’s being handled right now,” she says. “Organizations need to set ambitious but attainable goals. They need to make people accountable, and they need to incentivize their people. They need to put in place KPIs [key performance indicators] and train their people to solve these challenges.”

“In order to make real progress, companies should embed DE&I into the roles and responsibilities of all employees,” says Devillard. Leaders at the top-performing companies demonstrate their commitment to these goals by role-modelling inclusive behaviours. They track their organizational metrics with transparency and hold themselves accountable for those numbers. They create sponsorship programs for underrepresented groups and provide a range of supportive workplace programs for employees, from flexible working hours to mental health support.

“I wish we had a silver bullet, but it’s a full ecosystem that you need to build,” says Devillard. “It can be done; you just need to do the work.”

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