Millennial women not advancing in careers due to “unconscious bias”: report

In the longstanding battle to advance the role of women in the workplace there is often a belief that the next generation will do better.

Even though women today are still getting paid less overall than men in many professions, makeup a paltry percentage of CEOs and veer towards the so-called “pink ghetto” careers such as nursing and office administration, the expectation is that young women will be more successful than their mothers and grandmothers.

After all, women outnumber men in universities across the country and society will surely evolve as it has in generations past.

A new study doesn’t offer much hope.

The Conference Board of Canada says young women – tomorrow’s potential leaders - continue to face barriers to workplace advancement.

The study finds that Millennial women (those between age 22 to 34) are less likely to be identified as "high-potential" employees (45 per cent) than their male peers (53 per cent), even though they are more likely to be "high performers" (74 per cent) than men (66 per cent).

Also, 27 per cent of these women say they’re dissatisfied with their career progression, compared to 19 per cent of men of the same age.

The Conference Board blames what it calls the "unconscious bias" within Canadian organizations, which is “underestimating young women as being too young, or not ready, to assume increasingly more challenging leadership roles.”

“This 'unconscious bias' means young women are consistently underestimated and overlooked, right from the outset of their careers," said Ruth Wright director, human resource management research at the Conference Board.

This oversight is bad for both women looking to get ahead in their careers and corporate Canada, the Conference Board argues.

"The effects are both cumulative and costly—for young women who are denied access to critical developmental opportunities, and for organizations that fail to recognize and develop top talent," says Wright.

The study comes alongside a flurry of recent reports showing women aren’t making big enough strides in the workplace, and that more females in leadership roles can be good for a company's bottom line.

A recent Catalyst study says Canadian women who graduate with an MBA earn $8,167 less than men in their first jobs, start out at a lower job level, and are offered fewer career-accelerating work experiences and international postings.

“Canadian women MBA grads are being short-changed by gender and geography, signaling important long-term consequences for corporate Canada,” says the report, High-Potential Employees in the Pipeline: Maximizing the Talent Pool in Canadian Organizations.

A recent C-Suite survey of Canadian executives also says while women are hugely underrepresented in the executive ranks and boardrooms, most executives are unconcerned.

The Conference Board study says “unconscious doubts” about putting women in higher-level positions is influencing how they are developed and assessed.

The cumulative effect is that just six per cent of Millennial women are in middle management positions or higher today, compared to 12 per cent of men.

“There is persistent, unconscious doubt about the ability of young women to take on leadership roles, which permeates into conventional talent management practices,” the report claims.

The study, which included two surveys of more than 1,000 young women and men and 29 in-depth interviews with women, shows Millennial women continue to believe they experience unequal opportunities for advancement.

The Conference Board makes a few recommendations, including performance evaluations that are more positive and open and recognition that the “unconscious bias” may exist overall in the organization.

Without changes, “the proportion of women in senior management will not improve naturally over time,” the report notes.

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