Latoya Matthews* has had a toxic relationship with a boss. And, though their immediate boss' toxicity trickled down from a superior, they often ended up feeling gaslit and unsupported. “This left me feeling overworked [and] not heard,” Matthews said. “[I felt] severely underpaid for the work I did and under valued as an employee.”
Matthews is not alone in their experiences. According to the new 2018 Women in the Workplace study, put together by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, women still face significant barriers in the workplace, and progress has been painfully slow. This year’s report found that, overall, female professionals still receive far less support from their managers than men do. In fact, women are much less likely to have managers give them the resources they need to succeed, less likely to receive help navigating organizational politics, and generally less likely to get promoted. And while all women are affected by these trends, women of color are particularly burdened.
"Women of color receive less support from managers than white women and Black women receive far less support.”
“When it comes to white women, the imbalances are small,” said Rachel Thomas, the president of Lean In president who co-authored the report together with Lareina Yee, senior partner at McKinsey. “When you look at women of color, the story changes pretty dramatically. Women of color receive less support from managers than white women and Black women receive far less support.”
Like Matthews, Divya Sangam has also struggled with toxic managers, but is now in a position where she feels empowered. "I have very supportive managers [who] are constantly encouraging me to go out, meet people in my industry, network and learn," Sangam told Refinery29. "They even nominated me for an industry award this year — which I won! For me, this is a huge breath of fresh air compared to places I've worked at before."
Sangam's previous boss, who she referred to as a "workplace bully," was never held accountable for her workplace harassment. Still, the situation helped Sangam reframe her conceptions of what it means to be a good leader. "Diversity and inclusion aren't buzzwords to trot out at [corporate social responsibility] events," Sangam said. "Walk the walk and interview and hire more minorities. It allows a diversity of thoughts and ideas which fosters innovation and can only be good for business."
Matthews, too, has a clear idea of what a supportive workplace looks like. “Manager support for women requires empathy, good listening skills, as well as encouragement,” Matthews said. “I love when I have a manager who encourages me to be the best I can be. I also love when I have a boss who cares about my livelihood.”
In the report, Thomas found that many of the problems start at the entry-level, particularly with hiring more women and specifically ensuring these hires get promoted to managerial levels. For this to happen, however, bosses need to be on-board from the beginning. “Manager support has a huge impact on career,” Thomas said. “If they aren’t on board you’re much less likely to see progress.”
This year’s report highlights the fact that women — chiefly women of color — remain critically underrepresented at essentially every level of corporate America. And though more and more organizations are publicly voicing their commitment to change, progress continues to be slow, and there is a gulf between good intentions and actual results.
Thomas attributes part of this to the social science theory of the ‘frozen middle,’ where those in leadership positions and rank and file employees are committed to diversity, but that change gets stuck somewhere in the middle, often with managers. “If they’re not on board it's less likely to happen because they make many of the day-to-day decisions,” Thomas said. “Decisions that shape employee experiences and career progressions.”
“If [managers are] not on board it's less likely to happen because they make many of the day-to-day decisions."
According to the report, just one in four employees challenge gender bias and behavior when it happens. The consequences of these are pronounced for women, particularly for women of color. And, when it comes to Black women, it’s “really acute.” On the other side, managers are generally not being champions of diversity. “Companies need to provide managers with more training — less than half of managers get unconscious bias training,” Thomas said. On top of this, far too few companies hold managers accountable for making progress on gender diversity (just 16%). Without these changes, Thomas finds it hard to imagine we’ll see a groundswell of change anytime soon.
Ultimately, what's lacking is a concerted effort from companies to drive real change. Thomas believes that companies are committed, but they aren't treating gender and other types of diversity like they would another business priority.
“Fundamental things companies do when they want to drive change [is] they set goals, they track progress, they hold their leaders and managers accountable,” Thomas said. “Less than 40% of companies set targets for gender diversity, only 12% share diversity metrics with employees, and only 42% of companies hold senior leaders accountable for making progress.”
From Thomas’ vantage point, the roadblock lies with reshaping company cultures to prioritize real, verifiable change. As of yet, most companies are simply not treating diversity initiatives like the crucial business priorities they ought to be, and this attitude is impeding the cultural shifts that are so necessary to making workplaces more empowering to all. “Until companies start treating gender diversity like a business priority — like something that is core to their business — we’re just not going to see real change,” Thomas concluded.
"At the end of the day, everyone is of equal value and should feel that way.”
For Matthews, working with unsupportive managers has helped them develop an idea of how they would approach a managerial position in the future. “I will listen to their concerns. I will motivate them to be the best they can be, and I will commit myself to always trying to be a better person and manager,” Matthews said. And when it comes to behavior they would avoid, Matthews was very clear: “I would never speak to someone in a way that makes them feel small or unimportant — at the end of the day, everyone is of equal value and should feel that way.”
* Name has been changed