Is a Perception Gap Causing the Gender Gap?

We’ve all read the stats. We’ve read them until we’re blue in the face: women working full-time in Canada still earn 74.2 cents for every dollar that full-time male workers make, and in two decades that needle has barely budged, even though women’s education levels have outpaced men’s. So it’s probably not going to come as a shock that we’re a long way from achieving gender equality in the workplace.


What’s the reality on the ground right now? According to the largest study of its kind ever conducted, not pretty. Women in the Workplace 2017, which was co-sponsored by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, surveyed 222 companies and 70,000 of their North American employees and found that women remain underrepresented at every level, and that progress is stalling, even though there’s no shortage of initiatives to retain and promote more of them. The researchers found that the bar for gender equality is too low, women hit the glass ceiling early, men are more likely to say they get what they want without having to ask, women get less of the kind of support that advances careers, women are less optimistic they can reach the top, men are less committed to gender diversity efforts, and women still work a double shift.


I know. It’s beginning to sound like a broken record.


But the study also offered a fascinating insight into why the needle is so stuck: men and women don’t even agree on whether there’s a problem in the first place: women think their chances of advancing are much lower than men think they are, and men think their company is doing a better job on gender diversity than women think it is.


Even when men and women work on the same teams, women largely view gender equality as a work-in-progress — one still very much in its early stages—whereas their male colleagues think it’s a done deal. What’s more, a lot more men than women think that the men and women in their companies are playing on a level playing field —even in places where the number of women in top executive positions compared to the number of men is miniscule (less than 1 in 10). Men are also much more likely to say that gender diversity isn’t a priority for them. They think it will prevent merit-based promotions.


I know what you’re thinking: if men and women can’t even agree that there is a problem, how will we ever make any progress? I understand. But I’m a problem solver not a prophet of doom, so rather than focus on how we’re so stuck, I’d prefer to focus on how we’re going to get unstuck.


Admittedly, I may not be the most unbiased person to speak on this subject. I was a widow with four young kids when FedEx tapped me to run one of its global regions. How many companies do you know – especially in a male-dominated industry — that would make that choice?


I realize I work for an unusually progressive company. But the reason I’m optimistic that perceptions will change is because it has become increasingly impossible to ignore that they must—especially since a growing body of evidence indicates that having women and diverse decision makers in leadership positions boosts a company’s bottom line.


In my experience, it’s never just one thing that changes perceptions. It’s a thousand little things. Which is why even when it feels as if you’re stuck —especially when it feels that way —the only thing to do is keep hammering away.