Mind the Gender Gap | HBA

Mind the Gender Gap

How Supporting Women Early On in Their Careers Can Increase Gender Equality in the C-Suite

Hello and welcome to the sixth article of the Gender Parity Mini-Series. The idea for this article stemmed from the 2021 edition of the McKinsey 'Women in the Workplace' report that highlighted the need to support young women professionally to help bridge the gender gap. You will read evidence from studies and hear personal experiences of two professionals in the pharmaceutical industry (click here for the video) that highlight both disadvantages young women continue to face in the workplace and recommended paths to promotion.

Enjoy reading!

According to the ‘Women in the Workplace’ 2021 report from McKinsey, women represented 24 percent of the C-suite employees in corporate America in 2021. Underrepresentation starts early on in the career, when for every 100 men promoted to a first-level manager position at the end of 2020, only 86 women were promoted. Men are promoted at a 30 percent quicker rate, while entry-level women are more likely to spend five or more years in the same role. Supporting women early on can help bridge the growing gender gap in the more advanced stages of their career — but how?

The gender gap cannot be explained by differences in education, choice of degree, or ambition. Over time, the share of women with a bachelor’s degree has increased steadily. In the U.S., women earned 58 percent of the bachelor’s degrees granted in the 2019-2020 academic year. While about half of business college degrees have gone to women since 2000, the share of women in the C-suite is only 24 percent — compared to 47 percent in entry-level positions. Moreover, a McKinsey report from 2016 suggests that women and men in corporate jobs ask for promotions at the same rate.

Various research papers and testimonies suggest that young women are subjected to the double whammy of being (drumroll) young and women. The so-called weaker sex might often be a victim of jokes, comments, misunderstandings, and microaggressions, although less in more recent years with heightened awareness from the #MeToo movement and resulting actions from companies and individuals. In addition, there are double standards that reward certain behavioural traits from men but not from women: while a man negotiating might come across as confident and assertive, women are more likely to receive pushback when doing so and are perceived as ‘bossy,’ ‘pushy,’ and/or ‘intimidating.’ While a man might be praised for having photos of his family in the workplace, a woman might be considered distracted and less committed.

Women are more likely than men to have their judgement questioned, their speech interrupted or spoken over, and their emotional state a frequent source of commentary. Women are likely to be bullied by men at work as well as by other women. Forbes reports that women bully other women up to 80 percent of the time, causing their victims to be more likely to burn out, feel negative about their job, or find it harder to concentrate because of stress. COVID-19 might have exacerbated the situation; an article from the Economist reports that one-third of surveyed women working in tech said they were interrupted or ignored more often in virtual meetings than those held in person.

Ageism is another factor of disadvantage, be it either for younger or older professionals. Upon reflection, age is predominantly brought up in conversations to belittle credibility: too young for your position and others might think you do not have the experience or authority that your peers have; too old and others might think you are not adapting quickly enough to new challenges in the workplace. Younger women, and younger employees more broadly, tend to have their expertise questioned more compared to older colleagues, regardless of capability. Capability questioning can be blunt (you are capable of handling this call, but you need to invite your much older colleague to the meeting to show we take this project seriously) or it can be implied (as the youngest present staff member, your voice may not be heard — maybe because older colleagues think you do not have the right experience, judgement, or strategic skills to add significant value).

But even if double standards regarding gender and ageism were solved, studies and our interviewees’ experiences suggest that women might still be at a disadvantage when considered for a first promotion, as this event often coincides with them wanting to start a family. With childcare costs being high in the Western world (85 percent of the median rent in America), it is mothers who often take on the burden of staying at home to help with the costs or opt for part-time or less-qualified jobs, which tend to decelerate their career. In fact, 44-75 percent of women have scaled-back their professional careers after becoming mothers, compared to just 13-37 percent of fathers. Those women that go back to work often do not get support from their workplace, get their commitment to work questioned, and put more pressure on themselves to deliver the same results — all while figuring out how to raise a newborn.

What can be done to close the workplace gender gap?

Governments have an important role to play and should make it a top priority to ensure equal opportunities for half of their workforce — because it is fair for women, but also because equal opportunity brings sizeable economic benefits. McKinsey calculated that the world economy would be 26 percent richer if the gender gaps in workplace participation, number of hours worked, and productivity were bridged. Payment policies regarding parental leave are showing some good results in Europe: about 90 percent of fathers in Sweden and Norway and about 34 percent of fathers in Germany took parental leave once the payment became more appealing. In Germany, making childcare mandatory for children up to the age of three drove one-third of mothers who would otherwise not work to start working — their taxes alone covered 60 percent of the policy’s cost. Increased corporate support of employees working from home, more common now since the start of the pandemic, would also help balance the gender gap. With mothers and fathers being expected to work fewer hours in the office and more at home comes flexibility for both parents to fit in caretaking tasks for their children during working hours — thereby sharing the childcare burden equally.

Companies can take an active role in introducing a combination of policies to promote gender equality in the workplace. The first step should be that of understanding the problem. Identifying areas in the organization where gender inequality is higher, as well as reasons behind it (e.g. gender preference for certain roles, less visibility for women, etc.), can help companies introduce the right set of measures to narrow that gap. Training can be offered to employees and managers to recognize and respond to gender biases, microaggressions, or bullying, and programmes can be established to help enable young women to strengthen their network and increase their visibility for advancement opportunities. Those measures should come with success metrics that are continuously communicated by an organisation’s leadership, all while being tracked and improved. Our interviewees were not supportive of quotas, as often such measurements are used as a reason to undermine the competency of an elected woman by opponents. Our interviewees did, however, support women being given equal opportunities as men, i.e. women being considered for the same roles based not only on their past experiences but also on their potential.  

Lastly and very importantly, our interviewees and probably every career coaching book would support the statement that women themselves should take ownership of their careers if they aim to be part of the C-suite one day. Young women need to speak up, often, about their career goals. They need to expose themselves to different experiences, work environments, and leaders so that they can build a breadth of knowledge and find the environment that suits them best. They should ‘wow’ with professionalism and achievements, thereby building a strong case for promotion. And further, this ambition and the resulting strong business outcomes need to be advocated by managers, mentors, and individuals that can enable the next opportunity.

Megi Mustafai
Brand Lead Haematology, Amgen UK
While I have a connection to Amgen, my opinions are my own and do not represent Amgen’s views.

Watch the video below to hear relevant testimonials from two professionals in the pharma industry:



Schmutz 2021, Age and Gender Discrimination at Workplace. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

The Economist: Women and Work, The Power of Parity. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

The Economist: The Gender Pay Gap. Men, Women and Work. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

The Economist: How to Ensure that the Future of Work is Fair For All. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

Forbes: Women Bullied at Work, Here Is Why Your Female Boss Does Not Support You. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

McKinsey: Women in the Workplace, 2016 Edition. Last accessed on 17 August 2022

McKinsey: Women in the Workplace, 2021 Edition. Last accessed on 17 August 2022



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