Skip to content
a group of women and nonbinary individuals standing as a team in front of a brightly colored background

Illustration by iStock; Security Management

How to Help Change the Narrative for Women at Work

Women leaders are just as ambitious as men, but they continue to face strong headwinds that hamper advancement.

Women are more likely to experience belittling microaggressions in the workplace, like having their judgment questioned or being mistaken for someone more junior. They are doing more than ever to support employee well-being and foster inclusion, despite a lack of recognition or reward. And when they attempt to climb into management roles, there’s an essential rung missing on their career ladder.

All of this adds up to women demanding more from their work, switching jobs at the highest recorded rate to pursue their goals, according to the Women in the Workplace 2022 report from McKinsey & Company and Lean In, which surveyed more than 40,000 employees from 333 participating organizations. To put it in perspective—for every woman at the director level who gets promoted, two women directors are choosing to leave their company.

“If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders; they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too,” the report said. “Young women are even more ambitious, and they place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace. They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.”

Alone in a Crowded Room

When it comes to technical fields, including engineering and some security roles, women’s representation is low. Women in technical roles are twice as likely as women overall to say they are frequently the only woman in the room at work. Women in tech also face frequent biases and prejudices at work—they are more likely than women in non-technical roles to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise or to say their gender played a role in their being passed over for a promotion, the report found.

Those microaggressions add up, and toxic workplaces wear people down. Women leaders are twice as likely as male leaders to be mistaken for someone more junior, the McKinsey report found. In addition, 37 percent of women leaders have had a coworker get credit for their idea, compared to 27 percent of male leaders.

If companies don’t take action, they won’t just lose their women leaders; they risk losing the next generation of women leaders, too.

Approximately 44 percent of the 5,000 women Deloitte surveyed for its annual Women at Work report said they had experienced harassment, microaggressions, or both in the preceding year. The proportion of women who experienced harassment and chose not to report it is high—only 59 percent of women who experienced harassment reported it. Many who kept quiet told researchers they feared career-damaging repercussions or felt the harassment might not be serious enough to warrant a report.

“Being invisible isn’t safe; it’s dangerous,” cautioned Eliza VanCort, author of A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space: Stand Tall. Raise Your Voice. Be Heard., during her keynote address at the Security LeadHER conference in June 2023. “You really give up a little piece of your soul when you cede your power.”

She acknowledged how painful microaggressions and other demeaning behavior can be and how those actions count on the victim staying silent or serving as a “communication caregiver,” smoothing over rough patches in conversations for the sake of avoiding conflict. VanCort noted, though, that “silence can be dangerous;” speaking out—even in small ways like asking what a person meant by their off-color statement—can encourage others to come forward and find support, which she said is dramatically needed in today’s workplaces.

Beyond employee misconduct or bias, women are also more likely than men to be stressed about work or burned out, according to the BBC. Societal structures play a role here, researchers found, especially when considering the amount of family responsibilities that many women are expected to manage alongside their professional careers.

Among entry-level employees, women are about twice as likely as men to be doing all the family’s housework and caregiving, the Women in the Workplace report noted. Fifty-eight percent of women in entry-level and first-level manager positions said they were responsible for most of their household labor, compared to 52 percent of women in senior manager roles. In contrast, just 13 percent of men in senior manager roles—and up—said they did most or all of their household work and childcare.

Women are also picking up more tasks in the workplace—they are twice as likely as male leaders to spend substantial time on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) work, but 40 percent of women leaders said their DE&I work is not acknowledged at all in performance reviews, the McKinsey report found.

Although this work “dramatically improves retention and employee satisfaction... spending time and energy on work that isn’t recognized could make it harder for women leaders to advance,” the report said. “It also means that women leaders are stretched thinner than men in leadership.”

This trend is affecting women in the security industry, too, says Brittany Galli, chair of the ASIS International Women in Security Community Steering Committee. Talent is leaving due to the heavy workload, a focus on mundane operational tasks over strategy, and a lack of support, she adds.

“We’re not recruiting enough women well, and throughout the wide landscape of the industry as a whole—whether that’s the young up-and-coming university students or the new managers,” Galli says. “Once we get that talent, we’re not very good at getting it to the C-suite, and that’s the next milestone.”

“In our Women in Security world, two of the pillars are how do we support women on their path to growth and how do we get them inspired to stay, because this is not an easy industry to stay in,” she adds.

A Broken Rung on the Ladder

For every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted, according to the McKinsey report. This dramatically narrows the field of diverse middle managers who can reach for the next rung on the career ladder—there are simply too few women to promote into senior leadership roles.

This perpetuates an ongoing cycle, where women lack access to other women in senior leadership positions who can mentor them, support them through career transitions, and demonstrate that a company values diverse input.

“We have to recruit differently, and we have to promote internally—with support,” Galli says. “If you promote a female and you put her in a position of leadership and then you leave her, she might fail. If you support her in that promotion, that’s the ticket. That’s what will get women to be better leaders at the top and get them there.”  

A big part of that support is teaching emerging leaders how to build a network that’s valuable, not just large. Valuable networks include a variety of allies, mentors, and peers who are willing to offer a sounding board, share their personal advice on how to navigate tough situations, and support the up-and-coming leader.

Some of the biggest and best networking you can do is with somebody who’s two levels above you, not necessarily one.

In addition, women leaders should seek support from “silent allies”—the other executives and leaders in the room that provide quiet encouragement, troubleshooting, or backing, Galli says. These allies might be within the woman’s organization or outside it, such as in volunteering roles or professional groups.

“Some of the biggest and best networking you can do is with somebody who’s two levels above you, not necessarily one,” she explains. “Networking, you get the most out of it when it’s somebody at that C-suite level. So, what we’ve tried to do within Women in Security is connect people with the CSO Center and say, ‘Just spend some time together. Just absorb how they got there, what they did. Ask them questions.’ That is a big source of inspiration.”

Those mentors and support groups can also encourage future security leaders to take on speaking engagements or other professional challenges to build the employee’s confidence, professional skills, and network.

Because those sorts of soft skills—from communication to change management to relationship building—are so essential for security (managing people is 80 percent of a security executive’s job, compared to 20 percent security strategy, Galli says), organizations can also tweak job descriptions to focus on those types of people-centric skills. Incoming managers can learn more about security responsibilities as they go, she says, but they will need to hit the ground running when it comes to building relationships and fostering trust.

Women are more likely to already have many of those skills in their arsenals, and adjustments in job descriptions could encourage them to apply for more ambitious leaps forward. For example, hiring managers can carefully assess the position to be filled and catalog the skills—both managerial and technical—needed right off the bat, but then list out the skills to develop within the role in the job description, according to guidance from Harvard Business Review. This provides candidates with a clear picture of what they can expect to learn from the job and what proficiencies they already need to have. This encourages growth-minded people to apply and sets candidates up for success in the role.

Hiring managers can also avoid limiting language in job descriptions that could put off potential applicants. Gender-biased language is known to discourage candidates. For example, overly masculine-coded language (“outspoken,” “competitive,” “ninja,” “dominate”) or overly feminine-coded language (“supportive,” “nurturing,” “interdependent,” “loyal”) are known to push candidates from the opposite gender away from roles, HBR reported.

The Not-So-Secret Ingredient: Support

The most cited reason for women leaders to leave a job is the opportunity to advance (48 percent), but an unsupportive manager was ranked second at 22 percent—compared to just 18 percent for men, the McKinsey report found.

Women under 30 were especially interested in manager support—56 percent of them said that manager support has become more important to them in the past two years. Having a manager who cares about their well-being is one of the top three factors women consider when they decide whether to join or stay with a company.

But being a supportive manager is no cakewalk. McKinsey’s research has now identified a gap that’s growing between what is expected of managers versus how they are trained and rewarded.

“Most companies say managers have been expected to do more over the last two years to support employees’ well-being and advancement and promote inclusion on their teams,” according to the McKinsey report. “At the same time, the shift to remote and hybrid work has made managers’ jobs more challenging. Yet relatively few companies are adequately training managers to meet these new demands, and even fewer recognize people management and DEI efforts in managers’ performance reviews. Companies are effectively treating this work as a nice-to-have—as opposed to a core part of a manager’s job—and this disconnect is apparent in the way managers are showing up.”

HR leaders are broadly expecting managers to do more than they were two years ago, especially around helping employees develop their careers, support employee well-being, and promote inclusion. But those team management roles are often missing from performance evaluations. Compared to meeting business goals (in 93 percent of manager evaluations), progress on DE&I was included in just 34 percent, team morale in 39 percent, and managing employee career development in 43 percent of evaluations. Part of this gap could be attributable to bias—especially experience bias, which overvalues tasks that are easy to define. But training for these key tasks was also missing, which undercuts the organizational value for these essential jobs while making it harder for managers to perform them.

More than half of women say ensuring a manageable workload is one of the most important things their company can do to signal commitment to employee well-being.

This lack of managerial support and accountability resulted in less than half of the women surveyed by McKinsey saying their manager shows interest in their career; only 38 percent said their manager works with them to help ensure their workload is manageable.

“This really matters: more than half of women say ensuring a manageable workload is one of the most important things their company can do to signal commitment to employee well-being, and women leaders are especially likely to say this,” the report noted.

The McKinsey report recommends that companies address specific issues managers face today in training sessions, such as how to help minimize burnout and ensure promotions are equitable. Focusing on concrete topics leads to better results, the report found. Companies can also hold managers accountable for people management tasks and DE&I efforts—having employees review their manager’s performance enables more insight into different departments and teams. Companies should clearly signal expectations around these efforts and reward positive results.

“Companies could also benefit from stepping back to make sure people managers have the time and resources they need to do their jobs well,” according to the report. “Managers have seen their scope of work expand dramatically over the past two years, and, understandably, many are struggling with the added responsibilities.”

Amid those new and changing responsibilities, women leaders will likely have to look outside their departments for support, says Galli.

“It should almost be mandatory that any role you go into, and in any male-dominated industry, you need to build your army of support from outside your department, from outside your company, and from multiple teams and levels,” she says.

When Galli worked at a Fortune 500 company, she developed and maintained relationships with individuals in every department of the operation, from HR to legal to janitorial.

“I found I made the biggest security impact by keeping in touch with those people,” she adds. “It’s not just your internal security department—all of those people need to respect and look at you as a leader.”  

Those relationships and alliances help when women face backlash for reaching a managerial position that someone else wanted or if they make management decisions that previous peers disagree with. Perceived or blatant competition between women for a limited number of senior leadership positions can also drive wedges between peers and undercut collaboration and support structures, warned VanCort at the Security LeadHER conference.

“There’s a significant trend of women undercutting other women who have gotten farther ahead than them,” Galli says. “And that’s happening all the time. As we’re getting more and more women into the industry, we’re seeing it pop up more and more. That’s something we need to stop. And the only way we’re going to stop that, honestly, is to overpromote kindness and support. Unless it’s kind and unless it’s supportive, it doesn’t belong in the security industry—we have enough challenges as security managers, we don’t need the undercutting.”

As VanCort noted, “You can’t make yourself bigger if you’re making another person smaller.”


Claire Meyer is managing editor of Security Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or email her directly at [email protected].