McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org released their annual report, Women in the Workplace, in late September. The report’s summary opens: “A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, women have made important gains in representation, and especially in senior leadership.”
Important gains. This idea repeats throughout the report even as it goes on to paint a dire and disturbing picture: Women earn promotions to managerial roles at far lower rates than men. Women of color lose ground at every step on the corporate ladder. Between entry-level positions and the C-suite, representation of women of color drops off by more than 75%.
Page after page of findings confirm the grim reality we already know. And yet, the top-line takeaway is about progress.
This insistence on a rose-colored glasses approach is pervasive. Just a few months ago, headlines touted 2021 as a banner year for women’s leadership in corporate America, citing milestone appointments of female CEOs. But a closer look at the numbers reveals an unsettling breakdown: a mere 8% of all Fortune 500 companies are led by women. Is this a record achievement we should be shouting from the rooftops in 2021? Is the bar that low?
“We are making strides,” the world says. “Look at all this progress!”
The truth is, the data tells us that putting a woman or person of color in a high-profile position rarely has the trickle-down effect people would like us to believe it does. Rather, it creates an illusion of inclusion—and it allows decision-makers to tick off a “diversity and inclusion” box and move on.
But the illusion is easier to accept than the truth, isn’t it? It’s easier to latch on to the optimistic headline, the upbeat sound bite, the suggestion that all will soon be well than it is to call out the problem. Because calling out the problem makes people uncomfortable.
As I write in my new book, Awakening: Ladies, Leadership, and the Lies We’ve Been Told, we don’t teach women to make people uncomfortable. We groom women to smile and accept these breadcrumbs and the spun stories of progress. We prefer people who shut up and keep their heads down.
How can we correct an injustice we can’t even talk about?
The Women in the Workplace report highlights specific strategies organizations can employ to move toward true equity. But how can we get to the solutions when we are unwilling to read past the headlines, when we remain so unwilling to get uncomfortable—to acknowledge the problem in an open and honest way?
The system’s not going to fix itself, and the people in charge of the system don’t want to talk about it.
It’s past time to call out the problem, to reject the simple sound bites and feel-good conclusions that brush past the deeply distressing realities of the systemic oppression of women in the workplace.
Does that idea make you uncomfortable? It should.