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A surprising number of men think women are ‘well represented’ when just 1 in 10 executives is female

Sheryl Sandberg,  chief operating officer of Facebook, founded Lean In, an organization that seeks to boost the number of women in leadership roles. (Kuni Takahashi/Bloomberg News)

Corporate executives like to say gender diversity is one of their top priorities. They mount publicity campaigns, tout their equal-pay measures, start up women's networks to help promote female leaders.

But the view of those agendas — and companies' success at achieving them — from the ground is starkly different when it comes to male and female employees, according to a new survey released Tuesday.

The survey, by consulting giant McKinsey and the Sheryl Sandberg-funded women's organization Lean In, shows a sharp divide between how men and women view their companies' efforts to advance women. The annual report, which in 2017 surveyed more than 70,000 employees working at 76 companies, shows that 63 percent of men surveyed said their companies are doing what it takes to improve gender diversity, while 49 percent of women said the same.

Fifty-five percent of men said disrespectful behavior in their workplaces is addressed quickly, while just 34 percent of women said the same. Half of men said managers consider diverse candidates for open jobs, compared with just 35 percent of women.

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While it may not be surprising that men and women have different opinions about gender diversity efforts in the workplace, the report also revealed conflicting views on what might be “enough” when it comes to the gender makeup of their companies. For instance, in companies where just 1 in 10 senior leaders is female, nearly 50 percent of men said women were “well represented” in the senior ranks, compared with only one-third of women who — somewhat remarkably — said the same.

“It really speaks to a perception mismatch,” said Lareina Yee, a senior partner at McKinsey. “I think what this says is that when you see almost no women — and then when you see 1 out of 10 and you think they’re well represented — our mind is taking a bit of a shortcut. It's settling into the status quo.”

The report shows a disconnect similar to what previous reports have found about how much men and women think gender diversity is a big deal. Last year, a survey by PwC of more than 800 corporate directors found that only about a quarter of the men who responded thought gender diversity on the corporate board improved a company's performance, while 89 percent of female directors did. Only 38 percent of the men said diversity improved a board's effectiveness, compared with 92 percent of the women.

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The survey also found a noticeable difference between the career aspirations of women of color and white women, despite a perceived lack of encouragement and help by their managers. Some 44 percent of black women said they want to be a top executive at their companies, compared with 33 percent of white women. Yet just 28 percent of black women, the survey found, said they felt their managers defended them or their work, compared with 40 percent of white women and 43 percent of white men.

“These are not employees at large,” Yee said. “These are the people you have already hired, you’ve already screened — you’re investing in them. . . . Presumably you’d like to see them succeed?”

McKinsey's report says the pace is slow for women moving up the ranks and maybe even stalling. Its analysis shows that at every rank — from entry level to the corner office — the percentage of women holding jobs is either flat or up just one percentage point since last year, with the share of women at the senior vice president level three percentage points lower than in 2016.

The survey suggests that employees' and their managers' failure to grasp the magnitude of the problem is one reason for the glacial progress. “I don’t think there’s any [malicious] intent; it’s a pure blind spot,” said Yee. In some companies, after decades with no women at the top, seeing even one among the executive bios on the website or sitting at the boardroom table can look like headway.

“If you perceive that it’s better than it actually is, then how urgent you feel it is to change is likely diminished,” Yee said.

Read also:

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