For working women, calls to Lean In at the office and get men to pick up the slack at home may have made the world seem like it was turning the corner on gender inequality. Then the 2016 presidential campaign happened.
But one look at the data shows no one should be surprised women are still held to a different standard, especially in the workplace.
The pay gap has barely budged in decades and few women rise in the ranks at the office. This fall, McKinsey and LeanIn.org surveyed 132 companies with a total of more than 4.2 million employees. The results showed that while women start out at near parity with men in entry level positions, only about a third reach senior level management positions. After that, things get worse: About a quarter reach senior vice president positions and only 19 percent get to the C-suite. Lower promotion rates, less access to mentors, less challenging assignments, and a feeling that they are unable to contribute as much to meetings all contribute to this inequity.
Often lurking beneath these trends is the misconception that women are less qualified. More than three-quarters of 1,000 people surveyed by MWW Public Relations and Wakefield Research describe male leaders as stronger at delivering financial returns and developing strategy. Another recent survey of 1,000 workers by EY found 64 percent said there is bias shown against women in leadership positions. Women are more likely to say there is bias shown against female leaders, but over half of men surveyed agreed.
Yet, the reality of performance is very different. According to a 2014 Credit Suisse report of 3,400 companies, those with more female senior managers perform better financially than those run by mostly men. Organizations with a female CEO saw a return on equity averaging about 19 percent higher and dividend payouts about 9 percent higher than companies run by men, the report found.
All of these surveys were conducted before the election. Yet, for many women, Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss to Donald Trump served as a wake-up call that they haven’t come as far as many thought.
“A problem we thought was on its way to being solved, is not near being solved,” said Carreen Winters, executive vice president and head of corporate reputation at MWWPR. “We’re having a reality check that the universe we thought we we’re living in isn’t the reality we’re living.”
On top of his crude comments about women and multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault, for female strivers, Trump’s victory crystallized the perception that it’s impossible to achieve while female. Women supported Clinton over Trump by a 12-point margin, with particularly strong support from young women: 63 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Clinton.
To many of them, her loss felt like a personal affront: “When this happened, it was like ‘Bam!’: This is a great example of someone who is super misogynistic being given a path over this woman who is more than overqualified,” said Claire Wasserman, who runs Ladies Get Paid, a professional development organization for women.
“There has been so much discussion about the advancement of women at work that it felt like it was happening,” said Sallie Krawcheck, who runs Ellevest, an investment platform for women. It wasn’t. And now a lot of women who were blind to that, for the first time, see the state of things.
Even Krawcheck, a veteran businesswoman who has long understood the penalties of her gender, admits the election shocked her into action. “It’s a bit like how you feel after a huge bucket of cold water has been poured over you: I’m awake, I’m fully awake. I’m tingling,” she said. “We have to do something different tomorrow than we did yesterday, on a range of things.”
Trump’s win is serving as a useful catalyst for women’s organizations. One benefit of the election is that it has made messaging for women’s groups clear and simple. “I’m conflicted because I’m devastated, but I see such opportunity,” said Wasserman. “We can stay focused on the action plan, we don’t have to worry about how we’re communicating it because the case has been made for us.”
Following the election, groups like Lean In and Ellevest put out statements reaffirming commitments to women’s equality. “You can’t be a woman — and perhaps particularly a professional woman — today without being forced to confront that, despite how far we’ve traveled, we have so much further to go,” read Krawcheck’s newsletter the day after the election.
The next step for these groups is turning all that talk into action. Ladies Get Paid held an “Emergency Town Hall” last week to discuss how to hold politicians accountable to female friendly workplace practices and wage equality. Krawcheck plans on redoubling her efforts to help women in business through mentoring, sponsorship and funding female-owned businesses. At EY, Karyn Twaronite, a partner and the head of diversity, says mentorship isn’t sufficient: women need sponsors and advocates in the workplace to ensure promotion.
“The good news is that it’s on the table; the good news is that we have more levers than ever; the good news is women are more energized than ever,” Krawcheck said. “The bad news is I thought I wasn’t going to have to try as hard. I thought we were in a slipstream and that the big effort had been done. But it’s clear that has not been case.”