Inbox: Disappearing act

Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company has taken another bite at trying to answer the old problem of what exactly it is that women want. In this case, its researchers have drilled deep into corporate America in an attempt to suss out why many businesses are still not tapping in to the full scope of what women can offer.
The report “Unlocking the full potential of women in the US economy” includes what its authors call the “striking discovery” that women who have made the leap from entry-level jobs to middle management and on to senior management are not only increasingly interested in becoming leaders, but also increasingly confident that they can.
So where’s the problem? Maybe it’s easier to say what the problem isn’t. According to report authors Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee, the sticking point isn’t simply lack of flexible working conditions.
Nor is it lack of support for working mothers or women’s desire to opt out. “Most women can’t afford to opt out,” they note.
“Instead, entrenched mindsets and behaviours – at companies and among women themselves – are two of the biggest culprits in preventing women from advancing,” the report says.
“The issue is particularly acute at the transition from middle manager to senior manager, point when women have proven themselves professionally yet disproportionate share leave corporate careers. For many, invisible biases become impassable.”
Barsh, director in McKinsey’s New York office, and Yee, principal in the company’s San Francisco office, surveyed 2500 men and women for their research. They backed this up with reviews of over 100 existing research papers, and interviews with 30 chief diversity officers and experts.
Their findings and solutions are likely to strike strong chord with corporate New Zealand which has for long time been tackling similar issues.
In the case of corporate America, Barsh and Yee conclude that barriers to advancement include lack of role models, being excluded from informal networks and not having sponsor in upper management to create opportunities for them.
Other McKinsey initiatives have already produced the insight that women often choose to stay in jobs that provide them with deep sense of meaning professionally.
“More than men, women prize the opportunity to put their energies into making difference and working closely with colleagues,” says McKinsey.
“Women don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the next management echelon.”
McKinsey says most companies are already trying to reduce structural problems such as lack of role models or access to informal networks. Many are also trying to adapt their work practices to meet their employees’ desire for work-life balance.
But Barsh and Yee say the research revealed some more “insidious, difficult-to-address” problems.
These include perceptions among senior executives that certain jobs just shouldn’t be available to women. They also include tendency to reward men for their potential but women only for their performance.
“Many women react to these barriers and biases by reducing their corporate ambitions in favour of achieving greater satisfaction across their lives – and companies lose out entirely,” the report says.
“If women are to reach their full potential in the economy, companies must do at least as much to address those issues as they are doing to address the ones they can more easily see,” McKinsey says.
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