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A Reality Check on Women’s Progress in the Workplace

Is it time to add some civil disobedience to the civil discourse?

One of my friends recently told me a story over breakfast that made me almost choke on my croissant. It was a modern-day tale of overt gender discrimination that’s likely to cause more than a few spit takes, so please put down your coffee before you read on. 

Let me set the scene: This friend called me for advice about transitioning to a startup. She started the conversation by telling me why she’s leaving her current employer. After years on the fast track, always pegged as a high potential, she was sidelined—not because of her performance, but because of her pregnancy.

Before she got pregnant, her manager informed her that he was sponsoring her for a major promotion. After she announced she was pregnant, however, he called an audible and informed her that he was reconsidering his sponsorship because he believed her pregnancy—and motherhood—would hinder her performance. Determined to convince him otherwise, she spent the next year “leaning in,” but to no avail. After promotions were announced, she discovered that her manager had not even offered up her name for consideration.

This Mad Men type of scenario might be easier to think of as an anomaly if the company in question was small and her boss was merely one knuckle-dragging cog in the middle-management wheel. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. Her (soon-to-be-former) company is a well-known, highly respected global firm. From the outside, it is a shining example of progressive thought and action, fostering women’s professional growth. And her boss is a senior-level executive with operational responsibilities over major markets. 

I doubt that my friend’s manager intentionally derailed her career. Maybe he believed he was acting in her best interests and those of the company, making a rational business decision, blind to his bias. The fact is that women hold “only 8.1 percent of the top earner spots,” according to a recent survey of Fortune 500 companies. And according to a Harvard Business School study, 60 percent of male executives have “spouses who don’t work full-time outside the home, compared with only 10 percent of the women.” On a typical day-in, day-out basis, male executives mostly hang out with people who look and think like them. Therefore, they aren’t challenged to confront their hardwired mental models about how women define success, manage the dual challenge of careers and family, and have unique perspectives and approaches to leadership. 

After my friend finished telling her story, I observed that she probably had a good legal case. She responded with a dismissive laugh, saying that she had no intention of pursuing litigation and was looking forward, not backward. But she did confirm that her story was similar to many others and that there is probably sufficient cause for a class-action lawsuit against this company. Reflecting on her story, I wonder if she picked the best course of action, to shrug it off rather than sue.

Years ago, I was faced with a similar dilemma on a much smaller scale. While alone in an elevator, a senior executive made some creepy comment about wondering if I wore my business suit without my skirt at home. (I know—pitiful, right?) I laughed it off and then informed my boss. He asked me what I wanted to do about it, and I did nothing, thinking that making an issue out of it would probably hurt my career more than his. Over the years, his lecherous behavior continued and I wondered if I had made the right decision, foregoing an opportunity to blemish his record and rein him in.

If my friend’s story has shown me anything, it’s that the growth and success of women in the workplace is still predicated on the values and beliefs—and consequent actions—of their supervisors . Companies can try to foster a women-friendly environment, but the implementation rests in the (predominantly male) hands of those in charge. According to a recent blog post, called “Stop ‘Fixing’ Women and Start Fixing Managers,” by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consulting firm 20-first, “there is only one key success criteria for gender balancing organizations, and that is leadership.” Cox highlights the importance of educating business leaders “on the business differences between men and women,” from the CEO to the most junior manager. 

The success of women in the workplace is still predicated on the actions of their supervisors.

Still, these recommendations seem kind of wimpy in light of research that estimates that, at the rate women are progressing, they "won't have equal footing with men in leadership roles in politics, business, entrepreneurship, and nonprofits until 2085.”

According to M. Ellen Peebles, senior fellow at the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, high-achieving women “consider themselves the stewards of the next generation” and are “committed to helping rising female stars navigate their way.” It makes me wonder if stewarding the next generation means that some civil disobedience should be added to the civil discourse. Instead of just going along to get along, women need to stand up for what they deserve, to kick up a fuss when they’re treated unfairly. Those of us who’ve been in the workforce for a long time need to consider that part of being a leader entails showing younger women how to do precisely that.

What do you think? How can the women in senior leadership positions most effectively pave the way for the next generation? Should women continue to wash most of the dishes or has the time come to start breaking some? 

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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