For Many Women at US Companies, the Problem Isn’t a Glass Ceiling—It’s a Broken Ladder

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The FINANCIAL — US companies spend significant time and money trying to improve the gender balance of their workforces, yet many of those efforts fall short.

All too often, companies try a little bit of everything, spreading their resources among multiple initiatives without a clear idea of which measures are leading to real improvement. By focusing on the truly effective measures, companies can be more efficient, retain and promote women, and improve both financial and operational performance, according to a new report by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The report, titled Proven Measures and Hidden Gems for Improving Gender Diversity, is being released on September 12.

The report analyzes survey data from nearly 4,000 respondents at US companies, as well as interviews with CEOs and chief human resources officers. The goal was to sort through 39 specific measures that companies use for improving gender diversity and then to rank the measures by their relative effectiveness.

“Most senior leaders understand the value of gender diversity, and they genuinely want to get there,” says Marjolein Cuellar, a BCG partner and a coauthor of the report. “But without insights into how well these measures work, leaders are wandering around without a map. This analysis helps senior leaders focus their time and attention on solutions that will move the needle in terms of gender diversity.”

Mismatched Perceptions

A key finding of the research is that men and women see the problem of gender diversity differently. Male respondents typically point to recruiting as the biggest challenge that women face. Women, by contrast, pointed to retention and advancement. The problem, they say, is not getting in the door: it’s staying with the company and getting promoted.

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“For most women in corporate America, the problem isn’t a glass ceiling—it’s a broken ladder,” says Andrea Ostby, a BCG partner and another coauthor of the report. “Our research shows that women are just as ambitious as men, but the daily grind and a lot of deep-rooted cultural issues at companies make them feel that the struggle isn’t worth it. So they make it only to middle management or—worse—leave companies entirely.”

Hidden Gems and Proven Measures

The analysis grouped gender diversity programs into three categories.

• Hidden Gems. These include steps that many companies overlook but that can deliver real impact. Flexible work programs—including part-time positions, working remotely, additional or unpaid vacation, and paid family leave—were the top-rated overall, cited by more than half of all respondents and 59% of women. As the only developed country without a national policy on paid family leave, the US is an outlier in this area. That means that US companies can differentiate themselves by creating forward-thinking policies regarding family leave and other aspects of flexible work. Such moves will give these companies an edge in attracting and retaining talented women.

•  Proven Measures. The second category includes measures that are known to pay off, such as providing strong CEO and middle-management leadership on gender issues, measuring and tracking progress with quantifiable data, and highlighting senior leaders as visible role models. (Notably, role models can be male—for example, a senior executive who balances family and career responsibilities—or female.)

• Measures That Don’t Move the Needle. The third category includes measures that accomplish little while sapping resources and attention from other measures that are more effective. Interventions that fall into this category include isolated, one-time training sessions without any follow-through, grievance systems, and mentorship programs (which often devolve to sporadic chats over coffee but don’t dramatically alter the career arc for most women).

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Many US companies have made significant strides in terms of gender diversity. Now, they must make the conscious decision to shatter the glass ceiling and put women on an equal footing with men.


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