Lean In’s Workplace Inequality Report Doesn’t Tell Us Anything We Don’t Already Know

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On Tuesday, McKinsey & Company, in collaboration with LeanIn.org, released their yearly Women in the Workplace report, an analysis of 132 companies that collectively employ more than 4.6 million people. The results, if you can believe it, show a still-grim representation of what it’s like to be a woman working in the corporate world. The report begins, “In corporate America, women fall behind early and continue to lose ground with every step.”

The primary takeaways from Lean In’s Women in the Workplace 2016 report are sadly unsurprising: Women are promoted less often than men, women get less access to opportunities and career advancement than men do, women are negotiating for raises but aren’t getting them at the same rate as men, and women are less interested in becoming top executives than men are. These facts are accompanied by numbers, of course: For every 100 women promoted, 130 men are. Only 40 percent of women aspire to become top executives. Only 29 percent of black women believe the best opportunities are given to people who deserve them. The numbers represent some progress since 2015, but not nearly enough to be noteworthy. And this report only addresses issues facing the small privileged subset that is women in the corporate arena, which means there are even bigger problems everywhere else.

These reports always take on the same fearmongering tenor — they’re serious this time around, if we don’t make a real change, we’ll still be in deep trouble in 50, 100, 200 years. They are often accompanied by stock photos of women dressed in business casual, either huddled over their desks together, looking at computers, or smiling while holding manila folders stuffed with papers with who-knows-what on them. Each report tells us something we already know, closing with solutions that we’ve already heard. And yet, as the months and years pass, it feels like nothing changes.

Everyone knows that progress happens slowly, but it is starting to get exhausting to read the same statistics. In nine months, I have written about countless new surveys, studies, and reports on the state of women at work, most of which come to the same general conclusions. But statistics can only take you so far. The workplace is made up of humans, and humans are responsible for the ways that women are held back at their companies. Women may not be getting promoted as much as men, but a report can’t change that — real-life managers with real-life and wrongheaded biases must change.

I remember thinking in middle school that there was no way teachers had favorite students. It was their job, after all, to be unbiased and treat every child the same. But as I got older, I realized my error: Teachers aren’t robots who judge children based on a set of standardized criteria. They are humans. They come to their jobs with implicit biases. This fact doesn’t change in the working world — it only gets worse.

The most important thing we can do as people who co-exist in the workplace is to assess our very human biases and either dispel them altogether, or strictly avoid applying them at work — especially if we are in managerial roles. Do you find you are often giving raises to men over women? Is that really because the men deserve it more? Do you encourage the women you work with to take on opportunities? Do you “harmlessly” flirt with your younger female staff members? Have you fought for paid family leave? Do you even care if your company has it? A better workplace is one in which managers consider the needs of their employees, especially those who are forced to enter the workforce from behind.

The Lean In report advises a few helpful steps to combat the challenges women face every day: Make a compelling case for gender diversity; ensure that hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair; invest in more employee training; and focus on accountability and results. These are all valuable steps, but they are geared toward a sort of nebulous idea of “the company.” Much like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the onus for change is put on the incorrect party. First, it was women’s responsibility to lean in to the people whose biases affect them; now, it is “the company’s” problem.

But any woman who has been to work knows better. The challenges we face on a daily basis come from real people, whether male or female, bosses or colleagues, whether in meetings or at after-work drinks. The so-called “company” that these reports often reference are made up of people, and those people are making decisions. The last thing any woman needs is another report made up of depressing statistics to prove how bad things are: Instead, we need action. Do you work with women? Instead of reading the latest news about the disadvantages women face at the office, think about your office. Are you actively doing enough to make these statistics a thing of the past?