Women are achieving great things in the world of work. They are opening 1,817 new businesses per day, with women of color starting new businesses at a faster rate than anyone else in the country. What’s more, companies with greater diversity in gender, race and other factors are more productive and see higher revenues.

Despite this progress, many women around the world still face significant challenges in the workplace. For example, according to a Spanish study, women are 30% less likely to be called for a job interview than a man, even when they have the exact same resume. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap in the US actually widened between 2017 and 2018 (the most recent data available). 

And these disappointing trends begin early on: According to the 2019 McKinsey report “Women in the Workplace,” the crucial spot where women get left behind in their careers is not, as many believe, when they decide to have a family; rather, it’s at their very first promotion. The report shows that while an equal number of men and women enter the workforce, more men get promoted into management positions — outnumbering women two to one in entry-level managerial roles.

So what drives success and setbacks for women, and how can we make workplaces more equitable? In honor of International Women’s Day 2020, Indeed surveyed 1,442 women in the U.S. to learn more about this topic and how employers can help.

Managers have the biggest impact on women’s success and failure

According to the women we surveyed, one factor contributes to their victories and setbacks at work more than any other: their managers. A good manager can inspire them to grow and achieve, while poor management can actually prevent them from getting ahead.

On the positive side, a majority of respondents (58%) attribute times of success and growth in their lives to having a great manager. That’s even more than those who credit their success and growth to learning opportunities (45%) and their education (43%).

A graph showing the biggest contributors to women’s success in the workplace.
This graph shows a range of contributors to women’s success in the workplace, with the top three being “Manager,” “Growth and learning,” and “Education.”

Conversely, managers are also the top-cited barrier to growth for our respondents: 40%  attribute their difficulties in getting ahead to not having a great manager. The next most common barriers respondents encounter are biases about the role of women at work (26%) and experiencing microaggressions (regular and brief verbal, behavioral or environmental offenses that women encounter, whether intentional or not; cited by 25%).

A graph that shows the biggest barriers to women’s success in the workplace.
This graph shows a variety of barriers to success for women in the workplace, with the top three being  “Manager,” “Biases: job type” and “Microaggressions.”

What can employers do to help? Foster healthy relationships between female workers and management, ensuring that managers are regularly checking in with employees and encouraging open, two-way conversations. 

Sponsors and mentors matter most to minority and LGBTQ+ women

While all of our respondents say that managers have the biggest impact on their success, there are other factors, too. When we break the data down by race and LGBTQ+ orientation, we see that different subgroups of women value certain factors more than others. For example, mentors and sponsors are seen as more crucial to success for Latina, black and LGBTQ+ women than they are for women as a whole.

Mentors are professional or personal connections who serve as role models and offer advice. Sponsors not only support a worker but advocate for them professionally, as well. For example, a sponsor might speak to their managers or network connections about a potential promotion for a sponsored employee.

50% of Latina respondents say that mentorship has contributed to their success and growth.

Latina respondents are more likely than other groups of women to say that mentorship contributes to their success and growth (50% cite this, versus 41% of all women). This may be tied to the fact that more Latina women also say they don’t have any company leaders they can relate to (29%, compared to 23% of all women). They are also the most likely to experience biases about the role of women at work (32%, versus 24% of women overall).

19% of both black and LBTQ+ women say that a sponsor contributed to their success, compared to 11% of women overall.

More black and LGBTQ+ women partially attribute their success to sponsorship than do other groups. Almost one in five (19%) of both black and LGBTQ+ women say that a sponsor contributed to their success, compared to 11% of women overall.

This may be because black and LGBTQ+ women are also the most likely of all our respondents to experience racism, sexism or discrimination at work (27% of black women and 28% of LGBTQ+ women mention this, compared to 19% of women overall).

To combat this, implement company-wide education about biases and microaggressions, supporting small-group and individual discussions about issues as they arise. Employers can also offer formal mentorship and sponsorship programs that connect women workers with those who inspire them, both within the company and beyond.

Focus on individual relationships, not just company-wide initiatives

Finally, certain elements of company culture affect women’s achievement. At a minimum, today’s workplaces should have a diverse group of employees. Going a step further, employers can implement inclusion initiatives that involve diverse employees with key activities and decisions. 

But the most important thing employers can do? Create an environment where everyone truly feels they belong. After all, having a seat at the table isn’t enough if workers don’t feel at home there.

All of the women in our survey (along with every subgroup) say that feeling like they belong is the most important aspect of company culture that contributes to their success and growth (cited by 36%). This is ranked as even more important than a culture of diversity and inclusion (21%), diversity and growth efforts (15%) and diversity key performance indicators (KPIs; cited by 5%). 

However, these company-wide efforts still matter, especially to certain groups: One-quarter of women of racial minorities say a culture of diversity and inclusion has contributed to their success and growth. And LGBTQ+ women are much more likely than the overall population to attribute their success to diversity and growth efforts (23%, versus 15% overall) and diversity KPIs (12%, compared to 5% of all women).

Company-wide diversity and inclusion efforts are a great baseline for creating an egalitarian environment. But people are more heavily impacted by the interpersonal relationships and interactions they have at work. Supporting healthy relationships with managers and peers, mitigating biases through education, supporting sponsorship and mentorship opportunities and making sure individuals have opportunities to grow and learn will make your company a place where all women feel they belong.


Indeed conducted a study ahead of International Women’s Day on women’s experiences in the workplace. Specifically, we looked at the biggest contributors and barriers for women when it came to success in their careers. We surveyed over 1,400 women, and the survey was conducted at 95% confidence, +/- 2% margin of error. In order to qualify for our survey, respondents must live in and work in the United States, identify as female and be employed full-time.