Nearly half of men think it’s sufficient when 1 in 10 senior leaders at their company is a woman

Sheryl Sandberg is not amused.
Sheryl Sandberg is not amused.
Image: (Brian Snyder/AP)
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There are endless justifications (and excuses) for women’s relative absence in business leadership. Many of them point to women—our families, ambitions, genetic dispositions—to explain the fact that 80% of C-suite executives are men.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and author of Lean In, is sick of this narrative. As part of this year’s Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey & Co. and, the nonprofit founded alongside Sandberg’s book, she penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on how to achieve gender equality. In it, she argues that the underrepresentation of women at every step of the corporate ladder is not because of attrition or lack of asking. “Women and men stay with their companies at roughly the same rate… [and] seek promotions at the same rate as men,” she writes.

Rather, the findings of the McKinsey/LeanIn report, which reflects the input of 222 companies employing more than 12 million people, suggest that gender equality persists largely because of blind spots.

“It’s hard to solve a problem we don’t fully see or understand—and when it comes to gender in the workplace, too often we miss the scope and scale of the issue,” writes Sandberg.

“Many men look right past it. More than 60% of men believe that their company is already doing what it takes to improve gender diversity. And 50% of men think their managers already consider a diverse lineup of candidates to fill open slots. On both counts, women disagree. And on a key question—’How is disrespectful behavior toward women handled by your company?’—men are 60% more likely than women to say that it’s addressed quickly all or most of the time.”

Given that men so infrequently experience gender discrimination—the study found that only 8% of men, as compared to 37% of women, think that gender has played a role in their missing out on a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead—their general satisfaction with diversity efforts isn’t particularly surprising.

Far more damning is their ambivalence toward an explicit manifestation of gender inequality: The study found that nearly 50% of men think that when just one in 10 senior leaders in their company is a woman, that’s sufficient. “And remarkably,” Sandberg notes, “a third of women agree.” Perhaps we all need a reminder that women comprise half of the world’s population; 10% representation in the top layers of management is a far cry from equitable.

Women of color, who comprise 19% of the US population, are the most underrepresented group in the corporate pipeline—behind white men, men of color, and white women. They hold just 3% of C-suite roles.

These statistics are sobering evidence that across industries, a large percentage of employees are not only comfortable with white male dominance, but ignorant of its pervasiveness, and the talent it silences.

US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was once asked when there will be enough women on the nine-member court. Her response: “When there are nine.” That kind of imbalance seems totally inconceivable, until you consider all the decades men had a lock on the bench without anyone seeing the problem.