Fixing the Gender Gap: How to Create a Company Culture that Champions Women

by Hilarie Koplow-McAdamsMay 11, 2023

In honor of Women’s History Month and as part of NEA’s ongoing effort to increase awareness about diversity and inclusion, we wanted to take a hard look at the trends impacting women in the workplace. To explore this, we invited Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey Company, to discuss a studyshe co-authored examining the role of women in corporate America. The study, conducted between 2015 and 2022, is the largest study on women in the workplace, surveying 810 companies and 400,000 people.

Hilaire Koplow-McAdams, NEA and Lareina Yee, McKinsey were featured for a discussion honoring Women’s History Month, hosted virtually by NEA in April 2023.

Despite modest advances, the study reveals that women still experience a glaring lack of representation in the workplace. Today, women are still regularly passed over for advancement and leadership opportunities throughout the course of their careers. Often, they experience antagonism and microaggression from their male colleagues. The pandemic only further exacerbated these ongoing problems. Now, women are demanding more from their employers in terms of recognition, flexible work structure, and opportunities.

There is more progress to be made in efforts toward greater diversity and inclusion. Still, the study points to many ways in which companies can improve both women’s daily workday experience and provide opportunities for advancement and inclusion. To highlight this, we compiled the key takeaways for how companies can create a culture that champions women:

1. Fix the “broken rung”

    One of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace identified by McKinsey’s study is what’s called “the broken rung:” the first step on the career ladder where women are most often overlooked.

    While the number of men entering the workplace is roughly equal to the number of women, men are more likely to receive promotions early on. For every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, only 87 women are promoted. The odds of early advancement are even worse for women of color, of whom only 82 receive promotions compared to every 100 men.

    Excluded from this first critical promotion, many women begin their careers at a marked disadvantage. This missed opportunity for early advancement, in turn, has a downstream effect, leading to less opportunities for promotion later on. “We find it’s nearly impossible for women to catch up along the way,” says Lareina.

    This is an especially important issue when considering the role of young women in the workplace, who are often integral to building diverse, inclusive teams. Women under the age of 30 are more likely than older women to be women of color and identify as LGBTQ+. They also play an active role in promoting allyship and prioritizing DEI efforts.

    Companies that overlook young women stand to lose out on the next generation of female talent. To counter this, companies should seek to promote women in entry-level positions at the earliest opportunity. Managers should think several steps ahead in terms of who could fill open roles. By strategically placing women on paths to advancement at the outset of their careers, companies are more likely to create and retain a diverse workforce for years to come.

    2. Provide recognition–both in leadership positions and company wide

      Many women enter the workplace with the sense that no matter how hard they try, they will never get ahead. Overwhelmingly, the study showed that women report that their companies lack both female role models and adequate representation in leadership.

      A critical first step in providing a workplace where women advance is hiring a diverse leadership team. But placing just one woman in a leadership role isn’t enough to propel change. To actually impact a company’s culture, women should be represented in positions of power equal to men.

      Despite a lack of representation in leadership, women are particularly eager for advancement. When asked if they wanted to be leaders in their organization, the survey answer was a resounding “yes.” This is especially true for Black women, who experience greater adversity in the workplace, yet have the highest level of ambition compared to other groups. Nearly 60 percent of Black women leaders surveyed want to be top executives, compared to 49 percent of women leaders overall.

      But this desire for growth is cut short by companies that withhold promotions and recognition. In fact, McKinsey’s study found that women in leadership positions are leaving their jobs at the highest rate in years. For every woman at the director level who gets promoted to the next level, two women directors are choosing to leave their company. Notably, these women aren’t leaving the workforce. Instead, they’re quitting their jobs because they feel hopelessly stalled. To advance their career, they are left with one option: go to a company with better growth opportunities.

      Often, these departures are spurred by ongoing issues in the workplace. Women, and especially women of color, are more likely to feel undermined at work compared to men. Many reported being regularly mistaken for junior employees, having co-workers repeatedly get credit for their ideas, or being interrupted in meetings and peppered with questions about their judgment and decision-making.

      A more inclusive workplace is possible, but leadership must make it a top priority. Lareina suggests that even male-dominated companies can reconsider their inclusion efforts by using milestone moments to reset the table. “These are important moments to be strategic about hiring talent and managing growth,” she says. “Instead of replicating the current model, lean into being a more diverse organization.”

      3. Measure diversity and inclusion efforts as real metrics by which to determine a company’s success

        Employees can easily discern when a company is genuine in its diversity and inclusion efforts. 90% of the companies surveyed by McKinsey said that diversity and inclusion was a top priority. But employees who worked at those same companies said they noticed little real effort towards diversity initiatives. “There’s a huge drop off between the company’s perception of being committed and the employee’s sense that there is actually a plan and it’s a priority,” says Lareina.

        Rather than overpromising on hazy initiatives, authentic efforts surrounding DEI should strive to deliver real, data-driven results. Genuine DEI efforts should include metrics that companies can track and evaluate. These metrics should be treated like any other business metric used to determine the company’s success. “This doesn’t mean that you’re going to change your whole quarterly business review,” says Lareina, “but it means that your team is thinking in an integrated way about how to be successful as a leader and making progress on diversity.”

        4. Hire women in technical roles

          The representation of women in technical fields like engineering and programming shows little sign of progress. Today, there are fewer women working in technical roles than in 2018. Of the women surveyed who do have technical roles, 32% said they are typically the only woman on their team.

          Lareina noted that some companies, like Intuit Corporation, have bridged this gender gap by providing an apprenticeship program to underrepresented people who don’t have a computer science degree. J.P. Morgan and Workday both offer programs centered on reintegrating professionals who left the workplace for more than two years.

          Smaller companies are especially at an advantage to hire women in technical roles. While working on the study, Lareina found that smaller, consumer-focused companies were more likely to hire women in technical roles compared to tech-focused companies.

          5. Give managers access to coaching and support

            For employees, corporate culture is shaped by the people they report to directly–their managers. One of the top three factors women consider when deciding whether to join or stay with a company is having a manager who cares about their well-being.

            Despite this, only half of women say their managers encourage respectful behavior at work. Less than half say their manager shows interest in their career or helps them manage their workload.

            Companies typically reserve their most robust support and coaching programs for the executive team. But managers company-wide stand to benefit from mentorship, especially targeted programs dealing with minimizing burnout and providing an inclusive workplace.

            6. Offer a flexible work structure

              Post pandemic, the option to work remotely is important to many workers, but to women especially. Flexible work structure was cited as one of the top reasons that women joined and stayed at companies. Conversely, women were more likely to leave inflexible jobs for positions that allowed for remote work.

              Remote work is crucial for including many underrepresented groups in the workplace including people with disabilities. Companies that allow for remote work should provide clear, actionable guidelines. Additionally, they should ensure that employees are evaluated not on the amount of time they work in the office, but on delivering their goals on deadline. In-person work should be reserved for high-level planning and collaboration.

              Additional resources:

              You can read the full results of the study here. Additionally, NEA has compiled a talent platform for portfolio companies which includes vendor recommendations for DEI consultants and products and tools that support DEI.