Many companies may talk a good talk around gender equality, but new research argues that men get more fast-track management coaching at more junior levels than women in the workplace.
Men are also much more likely to be offered the chance to shine in multinational leadership roles and are more likely to be offered access to talent pools, mentoring and during the transition to more senior roles.
A study by talent management consultancy DDI suggests that in industries dominated by men, most women fall off the management ladder well before reaching executive level, with just seven per cent of women making it to this level.
Its poll of 10,000 leaders from 376 organisations in 76 countries, including more than 3,800 women and more than 6,000 men, argued that the "glass ceiling" often begins right at the start of woman's career rather than once they try to reach management level.
Women, it said, may not even be aware that they are facing discrimination because discriminatory attitudes are often so covertly engrained within an organisation.
Selection processes for high potential groups, talent pools and mentor schemes that help prepare them for more senior roles are often shrouded in secrecy and skewed towards men, it added.
The survey makes grim reading for managers who are committed to advancing women within their organisations, particularly as latest research has suggested that, if anything, the recession is encouraging more women who might once have striven for senior positions to get off the corporate treadmill and re-evaluate their careers.
A poll by PricewaterhouseCoopers last month, for example, argued that the massive jobs' shake-outs we have been seeing, particularly in the financial sector, are encouraging workers of both sexes, but especially women, to re-evaluate what they want from life, with the conclusion often being that what they want is not a high-flying corporate career.
Similarly, a study in February by the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and Harvard University argued that women who did MBAs benefited less from the experience than many men, largely because of the effect on their careers of career breaks or time out to raise a family.
And last October, research by the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs argued that women often lose out simply because, for whatever reason, they are less prepared to put in the over-time and brown-nosing needed to get to the top.
Women, it argued, simply often had different priorities in life and were not prepared to make the sacrifices and give the pound of flesh needed to make it to the boardroom.
But, while that may or may not be the case, DDI argue that there are organisational issues that can often prevent those women who do want to advance at work from doing so.
It found 28 per cent more men than women received specialist development through high potential groups or talent pools, with this rising to half more at executive level. Women also tended to receive less support than men during vital transitions, such as when they landed a promotion or secured a new role.
On top of this, women across the globe were more likely to fall off the management ladder before reaching the top, with women faring better when they matched the number of men in the management ranks rather than being in the minority.
Men were also more than twice as likely as women to receive multinational leadership responsibilities, with more than a fifth of men polled reporting overseas scope in their role, compared with fewer than a tenth of women.
Mary-Rose Lines, a senior consultant at DDI in the UK, said: "The benefits of diversity at all levels of leadership are clear and well-documented, so to find that women are being held back by 'invisible discrimination' is both disappointing and worrying.
"If careers are like trains, it seems men board the Inter-City while women make do on the suburban line," she added.
"The study shows that even in industries or businesses rich with talented women, there is still a disproportionate number of men in the most senior executive roles, proving that even with numbers on their side, there is no protection," she concluded.
There were seven steps organisations could take to help women progress further up the leadership ladder, DDI argued.
- Formalise succession planning, as those organisations that make formal plans to replace senior staff have more women in senior positions.
- Recognise performance equally to help close the continuing pay gap.
- Give women equal access to training and other opportunities.
- Provide women with mentors, whether formally or informally, which will help encourage female managers to proactively seek opportunities and broaden their horizons.
- Make sure female employees have access to international opportunities, as there are still assumptions women will not want to use opportunities abroad, despite the excellent development this provides. In addition, it has been noted that workers with families can be more successful on expatriate assignments.
- Make sure support for staff during times of promotion or role change is better and equal.
- Make HR policies more family-friendly.
Women, in turn, could also help themselves by making their intentions known, as many senior leaders assumed women would not want to take on roles higher up the ladder.
They could also do more to push themselves forward for multinational assignments counteract preconceptions of "feminine behaviour". Similarly, women in the workplace needed to be more proactive and not wait for opportunities to land in their laps, the survey argued.