The Invisibility Factor: Why Women Don't Get Promoted

the silhouette of a woman

Veteran journalist Lisa Ling has reported from war zones and North Korea, covered sex trafficking in America and the drug trade in Colombia. But there is one location that really tested her courage — the workplace.

CNN’s host of "This is Life," and the opening keynote speaker at the NEW Leadership Summit 2017, told 1,200 mostly women industry leaders that she hasn't always been a good negotiator for her career.  But that was before a network executive told her that her show was being renewed for one season while four other shows — all hosted by men — were being renewed for two. Noting that her ratings were equal or better than the male-hosted shows, Ling was "compelled to put my foot down."

"I said, 'That's very white and male of you.' I called my agent and said if anyone asked me why my show isn't picked up for an additional season, I'm saying, 'Because I’m not white and male enough.'"

Ling didn't believe the network's decision was malicious. "I think they didn't 'see' me."

The Invisibility Factor

Ling is spot-on in her assessment. Being overlooked is a stubborn barrier to gender equality in the workplace.

In the United States, women continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than men, according to the Women in the Workplace 2017 study by McKinsey & Co. and

In retail, where 60 percent of entry-level positions are held by women, the rapid dropoff of women advancing to the top ranks is striking: Only 45 percent of vice presidents, 33 percent of senior vice presidents and 31 percent of c-suite roles are held by women, according to the report.

The number of women in senior roles in consumer goods is similarly skewed: Women hold 59 percent of entry-level jobs, but comprise just 38 percent of the industry's vice presidents, 27 percent of senior vice presidents and 23 percent of c-suite executives.

Passed Over in the Pipeline

What's behind the stubborn achievement gap? Great differences in men's and women's workplace experiences. Women have fewer interactions and receive less career advice from managers and senior leaders, according to the Women in the Workplace 2017 study.

The researchers found women and men are asking for raises and promotions at comparable rates, but women are four times as likely to say their gender had a role in them missing out on a promotion, raise or opportunity to get ahead (37 percent vs. 8 percent).

Exacerbating the achievement gap: Many women are not comfortable, confident or trained to advocate for themselves.

The NEW Summit's closing keynote speaker, Dr. Victoria Husted Medvec, executive director of Northwestern University's Center for Executive Women, explained why women who are strong negotiators for their companies do not negotiate better for themselves:

  • Many women think they will be given things when they "deserve" them.
  • Many women don't establish aggressive goals.
  • Many women don't want to damage a relationship.

"They wait for a promotion, instead of asking for it," Medvec said. "If a man sees five job requirements for a promotion, he thinks, 'I got this.' To him, they're recommendations, nice-to-haves. But a woman doesn't want to be hired for a job if she [perceives] she's 'not qualified.'"

Fears of damaging relationships aren't unwarranted. Women who negotiate, McKinsey and found, are more likely than their male peers to get feedback that they are "intimidating," "too aggressive" or "bossy."

However, there are steps companies can take to level the playing field: 

  • Invest in more diversity and inclusion training at all levels, across functions.
  • Ensure a diverse group is considered for promotions and stretch assignments. Don't assume who may or may not want that role.
  • Develop talented women at all levels and review how candidates are selected for the line roles that lead to top positions.
  • Focus on accountability and business results, not hours in the office. Because they are more likely to be single parents or part of two-earner families, senior-level women generally have more family obligations than men, who often benefit from a stay-at-home partner.

At NEW, we know these strategies can help bridge the gender gap and add real value to the bottom line. I urge industry leaders to, as I like to say, "promote profitable pipeline progress."

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, Retail and Consumer Goods, a learning and leadership community representing more than 10,000 members, 950 companies, 100 corporate partners and 21 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at