McKinsey Quarterly

Sex bias: Still in business

| Article

“Sex discrimination may have been a problem in the past, but if you look at the number of women we promoted last year, you’ll see that now only qualifications matter.”

“Things are really changing . . . Why, five years ago there weren’t any female managers in the whole firm . . . and besides, the kind of discussion we’re having would be unheard of.”

“The men in our company are aware of women’s demands and are sympathetic to them.”

“Women’s Lib has served its purpose of making us aware of a problem, but it’s not needed anymore.”

Such remarks typify the response of many senior executives today to the issue of equal opportunity for women in business. They reflect a prevailing complacency—a sense that the problem, now that it is generally acknowledged and discussed, can be trusted to solve itself.

The extensive publicity generated by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year seems to have made an impression on businessmen in Canada as elsewhere. Most are by now aware that the number of women in the workforce has nearly doubled in the past ten years and that Canada is fast approaching the point where almost half of all women will work. Most know that women are increasingly better qualified for work, receiving today nearly one-half of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, compared with only one-quarter a decade ago. Most are also aware of many of the signs of progress that abound: that women have recently become more important to the mining industry as geologists, drill operators, welders, and bulldozer operators; that the number of female bank branch managers in chartered banks tripled between 1963 and 1974.

But working women themselves appear to have a very different perception. Indeed, in every Canadian organization where the situation has been studied in depth, large numbers of women—perhaps even a majority—are discontented with their current status and are often bitterly frustrated at what they believe is an almost total absence of meaningful change.

Who is correct? The evidence suggests that women’s view of little change is closer to the truth—partly because more women have been entering the workforce, but more importantly because a great deal of discrimination persists. After examining this evidence, I shall explore some of the steps that can be taken to ensure the success of an equal-opportunity program.

The myth of progress

Despite the widely held male assumption to the contrary, the available facts suggest that working women as a group are making little headway in escaping female “job ghettos.” For example, in 1962, 30 out of every 100 Canadian working women were in clerical positions. Twelve years later, in 1974, the figure had risen to 36. Looking at the same change in relation to men, in 1962 women held 63 percent of all clerical posts, whereas by 1974 the figure had risen to 72 percent. In short, over the period men were successful in escaping this relatively low-paying, low-status position, while women occupied it in increasing numbers.

Women fared little better in gaining access to the traditional male preserve of management. During the 1962–72 decade the proportion of working women who were managers barely increased (from 3.7 percent to 4.2 percent). At this rate, it will be over a century before women have a 50–50 share in management. Similar analysis of the Canadian labor force in other job categories confirms the pattern: women have made little or no gains in access to higher-status “men’s jobs,” and their representation in occupations traditionally held by women (such as secretary) has remained level or even increased.

Moving to salaries—another visible indicator—the overall gap of 45 percent between all full-time working men and full-time working women has remained constant over the last decade, and there is recent evidence that it is starting to widen. In a few occupations, such as managerial, professional, or technical jobs, women have made modest progress, but they have stayed the same or fallen even further behind men in the clerical, sales, and service jobs that account for roughly two-thirds of all women in the workforce.

Other measures of women’s status—for example, their treatment under employee benefits plans, the proportion of training they receive, the number of promotions they get, and their share of the decision-making power in organizations—all tell the same story. Namely, that while there have been a number of highly visible examples of progress by individual women, working women as a whole in Canada are really no better off than they were ten years ago—a time when equal opportunity received little mention. Why, then, has there been such limited progress when so much attention has been focused on the issue?

Brakes on change

Paradoxically, one of the chief factors responsible for the increased attention paid to equal opportunity—the rapid influx of women into the workforce—appears at the same time to be one of two principal causes of the lack of progress in areas such as job access and salary. To begin with, a significant percentage of the 1.6 million women who have joined the workforce in the past decade are returning to employment after having raised a family to school age. Most of them have apparently returned to the predominantly clerical and service positions they formerly held, because they are qualified only for such jobs, or because they lack the confidence to aim higher, or because they are so grateful to be able to work that they will accept whatever is offered. And as for new entrant female workers, the corporate entry-level jobs available to them are still primarily secretarial and clerical, so that no matter what their ambitions or qualifications may be, these women often find that they must start at the bottom.

Thus, it would appear that as long as women continue to join the workforce at a faster rate than men—as they are expected to do until at least 1980—their overall status, as measured by indicators such as proportion of important jobs held and pay differences from men, is unlikely to improve and may even deteriorate.

But the influx of more women into the workforce only partly explains the discouraging track record of the past decade and the disappointing future outlook. Indeed, in a period when women have roughly doubled their share of educational qualifications for higher-status positions and substantially raised their ambitions, one would expect that the increased flow into traditional “women’s jobs” would be offset by their rapid entry into new occupational spheres. Unfortunately—difficult as it may be for many senior managers to believe this of their own companies—all available evidence indicates that women are still barred from many jobs by what amounts to a sometimes subtle but startlingly pervasive discrimination at every stage of the recruitment and promotion process.

At the root of this discrimination is a stereotype, the basic view of women held by the men who currently hold over 90 percent of recruitment and promotion decision-making posts. This stereotype appears to be surprisingly similar from organization to organization; it is everywhere composed of the same dozen elements, those shown in the sidebar, “A male stereotype of working women.” As indicated, much of the stereotype is simply untrue. For example, women are widely believed to be absent much more frequently than men, whereas all studies have shown the difference in days worked per year to be negligible. Other elements, such as ability to relocate, may be more true of women as a group than of men as a group, but such generalizations are dangerously misleading when applied to women individually.

Unfortunately, the stereotype works to exclude women from “men’s jobs” at every stage of the recruitment and promotion decision-making process, from soliciting candidates to making the final selection. It rears its ugly head, for example, in the form of recruitment materials which indicate that only men are suitable for certain jobs; in biased instructions to placement agencies; in internal job postings that use the masculine pronoun; in active discouragement from “men’s jobs” in face-to-face interviews; and in distinct preferences for men at the time of decision.

In short, men—the decision makers in Canada as elsewhere—have become more sensitive and sympathetic to women’s demands and concerns without really responding to them in substance. They have convinced themselves that they are being liberal, open minded, and nondiscriminatory, and that there is no longer a problem of equal opportunity to be solved. Yet in terms of job access, pay and other issues where it counts, they are still treating their female colleagues collectively as inferiors, rather than as individuals with a wide range of talents and ambitions. This is the second main reason why working women have been making so little progress.

What can be done?

There has been much discussion, particularly during the “Year of the Woman,” of the reasons why companies should take action and tackle these causes and thus ensure equal opportunity for their women employees. The rationale most commonly put forward by both men and women is that it makes good economic sense for a company to make the best use of all its human resources. But regardless of whether the company will make more money, improve its productivity, enhance its public image with female consumers, or achieve any other potential benefits, discrimination is both illegal and morally wrong. The principle that no category of employees should suffer discrimination at the hands of the organization is crystal clear when the treatment of racial or religious groups is at issue. It must apply just as unequivocally to women.

For the corporation that is persuaded to act, the accumulated experience of other companies is very helpful. Overall, it shows that equal opportunity is best tackled like any other important management problem—with a comprehensive set of practical action steps. More specifically, these organizations have discovered that an essential first step is a preliminary assessment of the current situation in each of the dozen or so equal-opportunity problem areas, such as job access, salaries, employee benefit plans, and secretarial compensation, an assessment that should not require more than a month because most of the necessary facts will be readily available.

At the end of this preliminary assessment, it may emerge that a further eight to ten weeks of investigation are required to gain a deeper understanding of the problem and lay a basis for meaningful change. For example, it may be necessary to carry out a close study of what really happens in recruitment and promotion decision making in order to determine where barriers to women are most severe (are women getting as far as the interview process, or are they being eliminated earlier on?), and thus formulate effective remedial action.

For most companies, this diagnosis of equal-opportunity areas, however long it takes and whatever its form (e.g., task force, independent study by a respected woman, outside investigator), will reveal one or more sex-based differences in employee benefits plans: pension, group life insurance, disability protection, and medical coverage. These differences should be removed as soon as possible, for, to put it bluntly, there are no valid reasons for retaining them.

The diagnostic study may reveal other areas of discrimination that can and should be rapidly corrected. Employment advertising that uses the male pronoun or is placed in specifically male or female recruitment columns can be stopped by a directive from the company’s chief personnel officer. Similarly, blatantly sex-stereotyped recruiting materials can be withdrawn from outside circulation, and careful screening by the personnel department can quickly eliminate internal job postings that are written in such a way as to favor applications from men only.

Apart from sex-based differences in benefits plans and obviously biased employment literature, there’s a fair chance that the equal-opportunity diagnosis will uncover a wide range of more thorny attitude-based problems in such areas as job access, unequal pay for similar work, and the treatment of secretaries. These, of course, will take much longer and prove much more difficult to solve, because attitudes change only slowly and with considerable educational effort. On the other hand, neither the company nor its women employees can afford to wait for attitudes to change of themselves. The immediate need is to alter behavior—to put a stop to any discrimination or ill treatment that exists.

Mapping corporate action

Although Canada’s experience is both limited and very recent, those Canadian companies that have tried to tackle equal opportunity (and many US firms as well) have found that the best way to achieve essential behavioral changes and accelerate longer-term modification of attitudes is through a four-pronged attack, aimed at the following:

l. Developing and communicating equal-opportunity policies and guidelines. Such guidelines should spell out clearly what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior. This is not, as it might appear, an ineffectual remedy with little impact but, if approached in the right way, can form the basis of behavioral change that will eradicate discrimination. Discrimination against women is often very subtle, deeply rooted, and—most important of all—widely misunderstood by men and women alike. For example, Kathleen Archibald, in her study of the federal public service, found that nearly half the civil servants interviewed believed it fair to base decisions about individuals on probabilities derived from group behavior1 .

To eliminate this sort of misunderstanding and establish an agreed common basis for corporate behavior, a company should develop very specific policies and guidelines for all areas of employment, including hiring, internal deployment, and salary administration. Guidelines on recruiting, for example, should make quite clear that an interviewer may not ask a woman job applicant about her childcare arrangements or her husband’s income. Questions should, instead, be aimed at matters directly related to the job, such as willingness to travel and to work overtime. On internal deployment, it should be wrong to limit women’s access to jobs where length of tenure is important.

In general, sex-typing of jobs should be abandoned, and specific job requirements such as heavy physical labor, night or shift work, monotonous or routine duties, or manual dexterity should not be used as a basis for offering a job only to males or to females. Where salaries are concerned, company policy should prohibit hiring women at lower starting salaries than men for the same job. The guidelines should spell out what is meant by “substantially similar” work and make clear the company’s position that men and women should be equally paid for performing it.

Obviously these policies and guidelines should be widely communicated to employees, first in writing and then in follow-up discussion sessions. The company’s stance on equal opportunity should also be made known and fully explained to employment agencies, universities, technical schools, and other outside sources of job candidates.

2. Strengthening recruitment and internal deployment processes. Many kinds of action can be taken to ensure that women are given full and fair consideration for all job vacancies; those most appropriate for an individual company will depend very much on its organization, its geographical dispersion, and the sophistication of its personnel management systems. Some of the most common steps, however, are:

  • Revising employment advertising, recruiting films, and employment brochures, not only to eliminate sex-stereotyping, but to make clear that the company is actively seeking applicants of both sexes.
  • Posting all jobs, through middle- or senior-management levels, so that women—who might ordinarily be overlooked—at least have the opportunity to put forward their names for consideration by decision makers.
  • Generating a list of qualified women candidates for each management vacancy and making it available to the decision maker. He or she is thereby in no way obliged to appoint a female, but will at least have been made aware of the qualified women and of the particular skills each would bring to the job.

3. Increasing the pool of skilled women within the organization. One way this can be accomplished is by improving the qualifications of women on the staff by extending their participation in existing training programs, singling out high-potential women for specially designed courses, or placing them on carefully tailored on-the-job programs, such as job rotation and apprenticeship. Such action should be approached with care, however: it is senseless offering extra training opportunities to women who are already fully qualified for advancement and merely being denied promotion by discriminatory practices. In such cases, the offer of extra training will obviously do nothing but heighten women’s frustration. On the other hand, if women are not sufficiently skilled for a large number of “men’s jobs,” an emphasis on training may be appropriate.

A second way of increasing the pool of skilled women is through an aggressive outside recruiting program aimed at the most likely source of qualified female candidates. This will often mean exploring unfamiliar sources, such as volunteer organizations. As with any recruiting program, it is essential that the firm carefully identify the type and quantity of skills it needs and the job progression that women hires are likely to follow in their first several years. Otherwise, the company will be in danger of underutilizing its new resources and aggravating any problem of female discontent it may already have.

4. Changing attitudes. Here, the best approach is to ensure that several highly effective women occupy previously segregated positions, so as to provide a role model for other women and to demonstrate that women can competently perform what was traditionally thought of as a man’s job. Rather than being mere tokenism—as some critics may charge—this can be a real career challenge to the women involved, and an effective means of accelerating attitudinal change.

Another constructive step is to hold “awareness sessions” for employees of both sexes. These sessions, typically led by outside professionals, can be included in supervisory training or established as a separate program. Participants explore, among other things, the reasons for the stereotypying of jobs, men’s and women’s perceptions of each other, and ways to work more effectively together as equal colleagues.

Implementation guidelines

We have just examined very briefly some of the practical and specific actions a company committed to equal opportunity can take. While each may look straightforward, it is important not to underestimate the difficulty of successfully implementing the total program. This, as firms with “live” experience have found, can be a high art. Sometimes the hard way, they have learned a number of lessons that include the following:

Involve women employees. Women employees should be consulted throughout the formulation and implementation of the equal-opportunity program, by such means as leadership of a task force, ongoing dialogue with company women’s groups, or the formation of a steering committee. Failure to do so can result in action steps that do not really meet the needs of women—or even if they do—are perceived as arrogant and paternalistic.

Strengthen all aspects of personnel policies and practices. Working on one part of the personnel system at a time may not only fail to improve the representation of women, but may even make it worse. For example, hiring a greater proportion of women without providing opportunities for their training and advancement can result in further “ghettoizing” them in low-level, poor-paying positions. Thus, to be really effective, any equal-opportunity program will require a fundamental change in nearly all elements of the personnel-management system: recruiting, training, internal deployment, and pay.

Underpromise and overdeliver. At best, truly equal opportunity will require three to five years to achieve, and progress can easily be checked by unforeseen events, such as a recession or the failure of an important action program. To avoid disappointment and frustration, the company should take care not to promise too much too soon. If possible, it should make sure that its performance clearly surpasses its public commitments.

‘Tune in’ middle- and lower-level supervisors. These are the employees most likely to resist an equal-opportunity program—because they have the most to lose, because their age and tenure make them basically conservative, and because they are apt to be cynical about corporate-policy statements. Yet they are also most critical to the program’s success, for their attitudes and behavior establish the working environment in which women function day to day, and the individual personnel decisions they make cumulatively determine whether women progress or not. Thus, special attention is needed to ensure that supervisors are an integral part of the company’s equal-opportunity program. At a minimum, they must have the opportunity for extensive discussion between themselves and with their superiors as to their overall role in the program and their specific responsibility for making it succeed.

Provide ongoing staff support. Although line managers bear primary responsibility for the implementation of an equal-opportunity program, a great deal of staff work must also be done. For example, a single seemingly straightforward project such as developing a comprehensive set of equal-opportunity policies can tie up one or two people for several months. Since many related projects will also have to be carried out, the overall program can easily bog down. To avoid this, a company will be wise to assign at least one senior manager solely to equal-opportunity implementation.

Keep top management involved. The active involvement of senior management is obviously critical to the success of an equal-opportunity program, but it is likely that their enthusiasm will wane over time. Most of the personal satisfactions—the fun of developing solutions to difficult problems, the positive response from women employees—are concentrated in the early stages of the program. But drudgery and setbacks are inevitable as the work proceeds. Special care, therefore, should be taken to maintain visible (not necessarily time-consuming) participation by senior management in such activities as six-month reviews of overall progress on the program, annual discussions with subordinates on their accomplishments in equal opportunity, periodic meetings with women employees, and submission of an annual equal-opportunity report to the board of the directors.

In companies where these guides to action have been observed and where senior management is truly committed, significant improvements in the status of women have been achieved without undue dislocation. A number of companies have removed or are removing sex-based differences in benefits plans. Several large firms and the federal public service have already done away with “rug ranking” of secretaries. And job access, too, can be improved. For example, at one major charter bank the proportion of women in management rose from 6 percent to nearly 17 percent over a four-year period, after the adoption of a low-key, but well-conceived action plan. At a Crown corporation, by no means noted for its progressive attitudes, the proportion of women in key administrative positions was increased threefold over a period of several years.

Achieving equal opportunity for working women is possible. It is up to the men who currently run industry to do the right thing and get on with the job.

Explore a career with us