By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a recent study out of UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, men and women view the gap between genders at the workplace very differently.

Men were much more likely to say that the percentage of women in senior management had risen in the last five years. Men were also more likely to commend their companies efforts at recruiting women.

What is interesting about the study, based on a survey of 925 professionals involved in talent development at top companies in the US, was that the perception gap between men and women was huge – about 20 percentage points wide. For example, 57% of men said the number of women in senior management had increased in the past five years – compared with only 36% of women. Similarly, 53% of men said their companies were “extremely” or “moderately” effective at recruiting women, compared with only 33% of women. And when it came to retention of women, 73% of men said their organizations were “extremely” or “moderately” effective, and only 52% of women said the same.

In each of these cases, men were about 20 percentage points more positive than women regarding their firm’s efforts toward promoting, recruiting, and retaining female employees. This gap shows that men and women experience corporate live very differently – and this difference in perception, because men are still the dominant voices at most corporations, could be slowing the path toward gender diversity at the top.

Challenges Created by Gap

Susan Cates, UNC Kenan-Flagler associate dean of executive development, said, “Significant gaps exist in the ways that business leaders view their firms’ efforts to develop women business leaders.”

And when male leaders don’t recognize the challenges that women face in the workforce, it can mean a tougher battle for those working toward gender diversity in the office. Cates added, “Significant gaps exist in the ways that business leaders view their firms’ efforts to develop women business leaders.”

More than half of women surveyed (52%) said the development of women leaders was not on their organization’s strategic agenda. Only 31% of men said the same. Again, there’s that roughly 20% perception gap in what men and women are experiencing in the workplace as far as women’s advancement.

This gap can make achieving senior level gender diversity more difficult. Leadership buy-in is critical for any initiative to work, and when the majority of those at the top don’t perceive a clear need, it’s not going to get recognition, support, or respect.

The report, written by Mindy Storrie Director of Leadership Development UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, explains:

“Because men are more likely than women to be in senior-leadership positions, these perceptions gaps should not be overlooked. As with so many human resource initiatives—from performance management to succession planning to compensation to training and development (and everything in between)–the number one priority for success is to achieve buy-in from the top. If top management is mostly male, obtaining buy-in for programs that foster the recruitment, development and retention of women in organizations may be a key challenge.”

Because the majority of those in leadership don’t recognize a need for women’s development programs, these initiatives are not likely to get the support they need to succeed.

Growing the Number of Women in the Pipeline

According to the study diversity isn’t really top-of-mind for most executive teams. “Only 2 percent of respondents said [the development of female leaders] was a “Top 3” strategic agenda item. Eighteen percent said that it was a “Top 10” strategic agenda item.”

How can companies bring men and women closer together on the need for these programs?

The first step would be to assess where the company really stands on the numbers, when it comes to attraction, retention, and attrition, as well as the numbers of women in the succession plan for senior management. Quantifying the advancement of women in real numbers – and communicating those numbers – can take the guesswork out of perception.

“Other effective methods to assess real and perceived gaps in gender equality may include conducting third-party exit interviews to receive honest feedback about why people are leaving the organization and surveying applicants who turn down job offers to learn their reasons for doing so,” the report suggests.

By identifying the challenges that women face and conveying them in real terms, companies can come up with more effective, strategic methods of recruiting, retaining, and promoting women to the top.