McKinsey and Lean In say they’ve found the biggest barrier to gender parity at companies

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The good news: There are more women in top level positions at America’s firms than ever before. The bad news?  There are still big problems getting there, and the biggest, according to a new report from McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, isn’t even breaking through the final “glass ceiling.”

Instead, the study suggests, women are disproportionately being held back at a much earlier point in their careers: the first internal promotion to manager, or being hired into a managerial role from outside.

McKinsey, a management consultancy, has for the last five years teamed up with Lean In, the gender parity organization founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, to produce a report about women in the US workplace. For the 2019 report, they collected information from over 300 organizations employing a total of 13 million people. They also surveyed more than 68,500 employees, making Women in the Workplace the biggest contemporary study of women in corporate America, McKinsey and Lean In said.

According to the report, for every 100 men promoted or hired into a role as a first-time manager, only 72 women are promoted or hired. The imbalance is greater for women from ethnic minorities, with only 68 Latinas and 58 black women hired to managerial roles per 100 men. The result, unsurprisingly, is that men continue to hold more managerial positions throughout firms. In total, 62% of manager-level positions in the sample were held by men.

“Based on five years of pipeline data from hundreds of companies, this ‘broken rung’ is the biggest systemic barrier to gender parity,” the report’s authors conclude.

Moreover, employers appear to be relatively unaware of this systemic problem. When asked what was holding women back from senior positions, HR directors most often cited lack of sponsorship and a “lack of women throughout the pipeline,” but not specifically the lack of female first-time managers.

McKinsey and Lean In suggest a number of fixes for the imbalance, and they fall into three categories: Goal-setting, hiring norms, and readying internal female candidates for management roles. Many more companies currently have diversity targets for senior-level positions than for entry-level roles. McKinsey and Lean In suggests companies could put in place targets for promoting and hiring women into first-level management positions, and ensure they have clear criteria, so potential managers know what to aim for.

A lot of the work of hiring diverse teams is done by making sure there are diverse people available. That means demanding slates of candidates from different backgrounds, and making sure evaluators check their biases when making judgements about them. Sponsorship and training do have a role to play, ensuring there are women ready for the roles when they come around.

The C-suite, meanwhile, which for a long time has been the target of much gender-parity campaigning, is now “the brightest spot” in the landscape, the report says. The number of companies with three or more women in the C-suite has risen to 44% this year, from 29% of companies in 2015.