Women have historically faced numerous barriers, both big and little, to advancement at work. The "mommy tax." Unconscious bias creeping into performance evaluations and promotion decisions. Lack of female role models and/or mentorship. The list goes on. 

With this context, there's a lot to be excited about in Lean In and McKinsey's fifth annual "Women in the Workplace" study. Forty-four percent of companies surveyed now have three or more women in their C-suite, an increase from 29 percent just four years ago. Eighty-seven percent say they are highly committed to gender diversity, up from 56 percent in 2012. 

However, the major takeaway of the study is sobering: "Women continue to be underrepresented at every level." The authors point to a "broken rung" on the step from individual contributor to manager for women. While there is almost equal gender representation in entry-level positions, women only represent 39 percent of managers.  

There are several systemic reasons for this, including unconscious bias at all levels of the organization, unclear performance evaluation and promotion standards, and less access to sponsorship. However, one additional, insidious factor is on all of us: Our expectations aren't high enough.

Setting High Expectations

The report points to an "overly optimistic" view about women's representation in the workforce. "When one in three managers in their company is a woman, 62 percent of men and 54 percent of women think women are well-represented at first-level management," the study states. "When one in 10 senior leaders in their company is a woman, 44 percent of men and 22 percent of women think women are well-represented in senior leadership."

I love to see movement in the right direction just as much as anyone, but when I look at these stats, I'm reminded that we can't let progress make us complacent. The reality is that until the workforce is fully reflective of the demographics of the population, we have not achieved equity. Could we be making more progress toward gender parity faster if we celebrated less and demanded more? Are our expectations simply not high enough?

No matter your level in the organization, there are things we can do to turn up the heat, and drive more progress faster. Here are just a few ideas.

  • No diverse slate, no decision. If you hire people, refuse to make a decision until you have interviewed at least one woman.

  • Ask about gender parity in interviews. Candidates have more power than they realize. The next time you're interviewing for a job, ask about what the company is doing to advance women. If you're the interviewer, proactively share the company's strategy and ask for feedback. 

  • Make advancement efforts inclusive. Be mindful that any company effort intended to advance women doesn't just help white women, but also women of color. For example, if you roll out a mentorship program for women in management positions, but women of color are underrepresented at the manager level, it by definition won't be inclusive. 

It's encouraging to see just how much has changed for the better in just the four years since Lean In and McKinsey's study was first conducted. But let's not settle for "better" when we can -- and should -- get to "equal."