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Young Women Face Barriers to Workplace Advancement

Conference Board study finds "unconscious bias" leads to young women being underestimated and overlooked

Ottawa, December 19, 2013 – Canadian organizations are—unintentionally—underestimating young women as being too young, or not ready, to assume increasingly more challenging leadership roles. Women are therefore lowering their career expectations, at a cost to both their own advancement and to the success of their organizations, according to the findings of a Conference Board of Canada study released today.

"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.Disappointed millennial woman

"Organizations need to implement objective and transparent talent management practices that guard against unconscious bias. Otherwise, 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."


  • Unconscious doubts about the ability of young women to take on leadership roles influence how organizations assess and develop them.
  • More than one-quarter (27 per cent) of women aged 22 to 34 years are dissatisfied with their career progression, compared to 19 per cent of men of the same age.
  • The cumulative effect of unconscious bias is that only six per cent of women in this age range are in middle management or higher, versus 12 per cent of men.

The fact that young women outnumber men in attaining university degrees and readily find jobs once they leave school, leads to a perception that gender barriers no longer exist. After about five years in the labour market, millennial women (considered 23 to 35 years of age in 2013) reported that they experience unequal opportunities for advancement.

The study finds that millennial women 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).

Women who are in the first years of their careers have fewer opportunities to be mentored, coached, take on job-rotation assignments, gain line management experience, or access professional development training. Nevertheless, they are more likely to take part in these opportunities when made available to them.

job satisfaction chart Lingering doubt over leadership abilities can serve to deflate the self-confidence and career advancement expectations of women in the 23 to 35 age range. More women (18 per cent) than men (11 per cent) said they can never reach their desired job level.

Overall, 27 per cent of millennial women said they were dissatisfied with their career progression, compared to 19 per cent of men. For organizations, this results in higher employee turnover; almost two-thirds of millennial-age women said they plan to leave their current employer within five years, while half of millennial men said they planned to change employers in that timeframe.

Unconscious bias about the abilities of young women to take on leadership roles has been largely overlooked as a reason for advancement—much of the focus has been on systemic biases or overt prejudice. The publication, Overcoming Barriers to Leadership for Young Women, recommends steps to protect against unconscious bias, which include:

  • Rigourously match high-potential employees with key roles using competency models;
  • Provide all talent assessors in organizations with education about unconscious bias; and
  • Make performance evaluations more positive and open—millennial women are more likely than men to prefer performance evaluations that focus on work they have done well and ways to develop further.

The findings are based on surveys and interviews conducted by the Conference Board in 2012. The research profiles a number of Canadian organizations that have made changes to performance evaluations or instituted training for managers to eliminate unconscious bias.


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