Don’t buy the idea the women are underrepresented at the top because they leave business at higher rates than men or because women have difficulties balancing work and life demands. The truth is that “women face greater barriers to advancement and a steep path to senior leadership,” concludes a study, “Women in the Workplace 2015,” done in partnership by and McKinsey & Company. Participating in the study were 118 companies and nearly 30,000 employees.

Modest improvements were found in some areas since a similar study was conducted in 2012. For example, among entry-level professionals, 45% are women, compared with 42% three years ago. Senior manager/directors are 32% women vs. 28% in 2012. But C-suite representation has risen just a single percentage point to 17%.

Women are leaving companies at the same or lower rates than men, the report finds. In fact, women in leadership positions are more likely to stay with their company than are their male colleagues. Women who finally make it to the C-suite are half as likely to jump ship than men.

The report spotlights two trends that it says help explain why women hold fewer top posts in business. One is that fewer women are in those roles that have a traditional path to the top. By the Vice President level, more than half of women are in staff/support roles in functions such as legal, human resources and IT. Most men hold line roles (with P&L responsibility and/or are focused on core operations) at every level.

Second, women in staff roles advance consistently but those in line roles advance more slowly. “In combination, these trends create a dilemma for women who aspire to senior leadership,” the report concludes. “On the one hand, line roles provide the type of experience that leads more directly to the C-suite. On the other hand, women in line roles provide the type of experience that leads more directly to the C-suite.”

There’s a great deal more to the report LeanIn. Org and McKinsey & Co. have compiled. You can read the complete report here. Then share your reactions and opinions at Join the conversation.

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