The real barrier for future female CEOs: Access to the boss

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(CNN) — Seemingly small moments can make a big difference when it comes to advancing your career.

Getting face time with the boss certainly helps. But meaningful interactions with seniors leaders may be yet another thing helping men get ahead faster than women.

According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, 27% of men said they'd never had a significant discussion with a senior leader about their work, compared to 33% of women respondents.

"A lot of times, we obsess about the big stuff, the big moments, like the promotion into top leadership, how many people are sitting in the C-suite — things we can see very visibly," says Alexis Krivkovich, managing partner of McKinsey's Silicon Valley office. "But we miss all the small things that accumulate, that get you to those opportunities. So what are some of the micro-interactions that signal that women aren't getting access along the way that sets them up for those big moments?"

The situation is even more dire for women of color. Black women reported the least access to senior leaders, with 41% responding "I never have a substantive interaction with a senior leader about my work."

How interactions build

Something as brief as face time with decision makers can make a big difference. If a leader has familiarity with someone's name and work, it can turn into opportunities for more challenging assignments, promotions and more.

"In the informal or small everyday moments, do women feel like they have those important opportunities to connect and get on the radar?" Krivkovich recommends managers ask themselves. "When people are asked about that next key account or that stretch opportunity or someone to take a bet on, who's in their consciousness? Who even comes to mind?"

This exclusion, Krivkovich points out, may not even be intentional. Senior leaders may be less likely to think of a woman for a particular project or opportunity because of the lack of exposure.

These omissions could ultimately shape the work lives of young female employees. Because women, especially women of color, are much more likely to struggle with "onliness" in the workplace — meaning they are the only woman or LGBTQ person or woman of color — this attention from top leaders can play a big role in advancing their careers.

"A lot of companies confuse creating opportunities for community with creating opportunities to strengthen networks," Krivkovich says. "Women do need opportunities for community, but that is not the same thing as helping women strengthen their networks for access to future opportunities. In fact, to make that possible, you really need to bring your women together with your leaders, broadly, which includes very much your men and your women at the table. A lot of companies miss that difference."

Breaking the cycle

This limit on access can create a cycle of exclusion, says Andromachi Athanasopoulou, associate professor of organizational behavior at Queen Mary University of London and associate fellow in executive education at the University of Oxford. As fewer women break through to senior leadership, fewer women at lower levels will even try to aspire to those roles.

"When women have [fewer] role models in the environment they work in, they're more likely than men to react to that by being more self-conscious, more modest, more reluctant to actually interact with others, because they feel they are the minority," she says.

Sponsorship from mid-level managers can play a key role in connecting newer female employees to these influential decision makers. Those with sponsors said they were much likelier to have a consequential meeting with a senior leader. These women also said they were 1.5 times likelier to see themselves as leadership material, compared to women without sponsors at work.

Inviting more women to these situations can create a ripple effect, says Leanne Son Hing, associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph and senior fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. If more women are represented in these spaces, senior leaders are more likely to think of women's names when key opportunities arise.

"If there's more women, more female leaders, more female upper managers, more women within research and development, within different departments or units within the organization — then people's schema of 'Who would make a good x?' is influenced by who they see in those roles," she says.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "The real barrier for future female CEOs: Access to the boss."