Alex Wilson
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This week, Lean In and McKinsey & Co. released the 2017 edition of their Women in the Workplace report. Like in years prior, researchers looked at over 200 companies and surveyed over 70,000 employees. However, this year found a notable difference — researchers found a new gap that is holding women back at work.

Lean In and McKinsey found that a “perception gap” existed between men and women at work. Not only do male and female colleagues disagree on whether or not women are given less opportunities, but compared to their female counterparts, male professionals see gender equality at work as a mission accomplished.

“Company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high for the third year in a row,” researchers wrote in the study. “Despite this commitment, progress continues to be too slow — and may even be stalling. One of the most powerful reasons for this is a simple one: we have blind spots when it comes to diversity.”

According to the study, significantly more men than women say that their company offers level playing fields for all employees — regardless of their gender.  Many of the male employees who agree with this statement work for companies where less than one in ten top executives are women. 

But how do women feel about how they are supported at work? Per the survey responses, women are more likely to feel that their managers give them less opportunities to grow. They feel that their daily interactions with their direct bosses are more important than the tone set by top leadership, a stark contrast to their male colleagues.

Elisabeth Kelan, professor of leadership at Cranfield School of Management, notes that direct bosses are affected by the perception gap. Because most don’t believe that gender equality is still an issue, they are unaware of their subtle behaviors that are holding women back.

“It isn’t that these men, and sometimes women, get up in the morning and say, ‘OK, I’m going to be a barrier to women,” Kelan said to the Wall Street Journal.

In her own research, separate of the McKinsey study, Kelan shadowed midlevel male managers who were seen as “inclusive” by their colleagues. Kelan noticed that they each consistently did the following:

  • Suggest women take “stretch” assignments. Inclusive managers would regularly suggest that overlooked female employees take on tasks that would push them outside of their comfort zone.
  • Laud female employees’ achievements to others. When discussing their team’s progress, midlevel managers would share the successes of their female employees with other managers and executives. Instead of taking credit for work that wasn’t theirs, inclusive managers always gave credit to the appropriate source.
  • Support bullied employees. When men “hepeated” or mansplained certain items to other women, managers supported female employees’ ideas and gave them time and space to discuss their ideas.
  • Praise inclusivity. Though they didn’t brag about how inclusive they were, these managers regularly complimented other managers for promoting and offering additional opportunities to female employees.

Despite the efforts made by individuals, companies still have a lot of work to do to create more inclusive environments. Men at work are still more likely than women to say that gender diversity isn’t a priority for them.

“Let’s face it, getting more women into [profit-generating] roles is what’s going to change the percentage of women CEOs in the Fortune 500,” Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human-resources officer at global consulting firm Accenture PLC., said to the Wall Street Journal. Inclusive managers, who eventually become sponsors of successful employees, are key to the success of women at work.

“When the leadership appointments are being made,” Shook said. “The sponsors are at the table saying what their sponsees have done.”

Much needs to be done by both employers and employees — and women and men — to achieve gender parity at work. Inclusivity is the best way to close the perception gap; by making women more visible in the workplace, the obstacles that they face become more visible as well. Only then can colleagues work together as a team to make work better for everyone. 

“Diversity leads to stronger business results, as numerous studies have shown,” the Women in the Workplace 2017 study reads. “But we can’t unlock the full potential of our workplace until we see how far from equality we really are.”