October 30, 2015 Practice Points

Study Shows Little Advancement in Gender Equality for Corporate America

By Susan M. Kelleher

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. and the founder of LeanIn.Org, recently reported in the Wall Street Journal that, according to a new study released by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., women remain underrepresented in corporate America at every level. The study, entitled “Women in the Workplace 2015,” surveyed 118 companies and 30,000 employees on topics including human resources policies, attitudes on gender, and job satisfaction and found only modest improvements in the area of gender equality since 2012. Overall, the study found that corporate America has made only modest improvements in the area of gender equality since 2012. Sandberg notes that “[w]hen women get stuck, corporate America gets stuck” because the multitude of evidence demonstrates that diversity helps companies perform better financially and otherwise.

The study found that, contrary to popular belief, attrition is not the main reason for lack of gender diversity in corporate America, with women not leaving the companies surveyed at a higher rate than men. Rather, the reason women are underrepresented at higher levels is the barriers to advancement that they consistently face. Indeed, women are twice as likely to believe that their gender will make it more difficult to advance than men, with senior-level women finding gender to be a larger obstacle than entry-level women. There is also the stress associated with overcoming these obstacles (as opposed to family concerns) which results in women being overall less interested than men in achieving top executive status.

Also, while the companies surveyed also reported that their CEOs are highly committed to diversity, less than half of employees believed that gender diversity was a top priority for their CEO. Further, the study found that ninety percent of women and men believed that taking an extended leave of absence will hurt their careers, resulting in fewer employees taking advantage of these types of flexibility programs. Yet, because research shows that mothers and fathers are more likely than those without children to want to become top executives, Sandberg believes that companies need to do more to encourage employees to take advantage of flexibility programs in order to relieve some of the stress of a work-life balance.

Sandberg further advises that to get more women into leadership roles, our culture as a whole has to address its discomfort with female leadership. Women should not have to choose between achieving their goals and being labeled “bossy” or not reaching their full potential yet being “liked.”

Sandberg concluded that while corporate America has a lot to learn, measuring progress via studies like this one is a first step in the right direction. To that end, Sandberg offered suggestions to the companies who participated in the study, including tracking progress, training employees, and remaining transparent in their efforts towards gender equality. Although there will certainly be growing pains in the process, Sandberg remains optimistic that gender equality can be achieved.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, corporate America, gender equality, diversity

Susan M. Kelleher works at Bressler, Amery & Ross, P.C. in Florham Park, New Jersey.

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