Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Debunking 4 common myths about women in the workplace

Women in the workplace: From the impact of microaggressions to a supposed lack of ambition, here's what you need to know.

Women in the workplace: From the impact of microaggressions to a supposed lack of ambition, here's what you need to know. Image: Unsplash/CoWomen

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Education, Gender and Work

  • A new report by McKinsey and LeanIn.Org debunks 4 common myths about women in the workplace.
  • It’s a “broken rung” – not the glass ceiling – that’s holding women back at work, they say.
  • The World Economic Forum‘s Global Gender Gap Report 2023 warns that advances in gender equality have “slowed down significantly”.

Women still aren’t progressing at work – but it might not be for the reasons you think.

Women’s campaign group LeanIn.Org and management consultancy McKinsey & Company have published a report every year since 2015 to help advance women’s careers and drive gender diversity.

Women in the Workplace 2023 looks at the state of women’s progress in corporate America – and also debunks four common myths on what’s holding women back at work.

Graphic illustrating the representation in the corporate pipeline by gender and race.
Women are still underrepresented in the workplace in corporate America. Image: McKinsey/LeanIn.Org

Myth #1: Women are becoming less ambitious

News reports might suggest that women are losing ambition – but data for the Women in the Workplace 2023 report tells another story.

The reality is that women are more ambitious than before the pandemic – and flexibility at work, like hybrid and remote working, is fuelling this ambition.

A fifth of women say flexibility has helped them stay at work or maintain, rather than reduce, their hours.

Women are as ambitious and committed to their careers as men at every level, including at the director level, the authors note. Roughly 8 in 10 women want to be promoted to the next level this year, compared to 7 in 10 in 2019, and the same for men.

Among young women under 30, nine in 10 want to be promoted, while three in four have their eyes on senior leadership.

Among women of colour, 96% value their career and 88% want to be promoted – making them even more ambitious than women as a group overall, the report finds.

Graphic illustrating the percentage of women and men who view their career as important and are interested in getting promoted to the next level.
Getting ahead at work is just as important to women as it is to men. Image: McKinsey/LeanIn.Org

Myth #2: The biggest barrier to women’s advancement is the “glass ceiling”

The glass ceiling – an invisible barrier that stops women progressing – is regularly blamed for the lack of women in senior leadership roles.

But Women in the Workplace 2023 suggests the real obstacle to leadership progression for women is a “broken rung”. This represents the first critical step up to becoming a manager. For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, only 87 women are promoted. For women of colour, it’s 73 women to every 100 men.

Because of this broken rung, “women fall behind and can never catch up with men”, the authors explain. Specifically, men end up holding 60% of manager-level positions, while women have just 40%.

Graphic illustrating the ratio of promotions to manager for men vs women.
The ‘broken rung’ is holding women back. Image: McKinsey/LeanIn.Org

Myth #3: Microaggressions have a ‘micro’ impact

Microaggressions – words, actions or settings that can be felt as discriminatory – is a term that suggests insignificance. But, in reality, they can have a “large and lasting” impact on women and make the workplace a “mental minefield” for many, the report finds.

Women are twice as likely to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state. And women with traditionally marginalized identities often face more frequent and demeaning slights.

Both Asian and Black women, for example, are seven times more likely than White women to be mistaken for someone of the same race and ethnicity. Black women are more than twice as likely to “code switch” – adapt mannerisms, tone or speaking style – in conversation than White women.

Women who are LGBTQ+ are almost six times more likely to hide aspects of their personal lives.


What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

Graphic illustrating the microaggressions that women face at the workplace.
Microaggressions are worse for women with traditionally marginalized identities. Image: McKinsey/LeanIn.Org

Myth #4: It’s mostly women who want – and benefit from – flexible work

There’s a myth that flexible working caters mostly to women.

But Women in the Workplace 2023 finds that both men and women see flexibility as a “top-three” employee benefit critical to their company’s success.

Less fatigue and burnout, being more productive and having a better work-life balance are key flexible working benefits identified by high numbers of both women and men.

It’s a problem, though, that on-site work benefits men more than women, because men “are more likely than women to be ‘in the know’ and get the support they need to be successful”, the authors say.

Almost 30% of women and a quarter of men who work remotely say having fewer unpleasant interactions with co-workers is one of the top benefits of remote working.

Graphic illustrating the percentage of women and men expressing their views on certain employee benefits.
Both women and men value flexible working. Image: McKinsey/LeanIn.Org

Women’s leadership progress is slowing

Women’s representation in the workforce and industry leadership roles is a key focus of the World Economic Forum‘s Global Gender Gap Report 2023, which measures gender parity across 146 countries.

For the last eight years, the proportion of women hired into leadership positions has grown steadily by about 1% a year globally, the report notes. But this trend started reversing in 2022 and has dragged the 2023 rate back to 2021 levels. Data from LinkedIn shows women accounted for almost 42% of the workforce in 2023 but just over 32% of senior leadership positions, such as director and vice president.

Advances in gender equality have “slowed down significantly”, the Forum warns, and it will take 131 years to reach full gender parity at the current rate of progress.

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