According to a new report by McKinsey and, young women are just as ambitious and qualified as young men, but they are not getting promoted to managerial roles at the same rate. The discrepancy persists at every level of management. By the middle and senior management levels, the lack of women is painfully obvious. For every 100 men promoted to management, only 87 women are. Among Black women, that number falls to a dismal 54.

The report underlines that the typical excuses companies give for a gender imbalance — that women have lower aspirations or less confidence, or take time off for kids — aren’t the biggest hurdle women face. The big problem is that women tend to get promoted on their past performance while men get promoted on perceived potential.

That makes it easier for men to get the nod more quickly.

The findings in the report are stark, but they shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention. Other studies have identified similar patterns.

For instance, a recent paper by researchers at the University of Minnesota, Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that managers in a large retail chain saw women as having less leadership potential even though their performance reviews were better, on average, than those of their male peers.

Analyzing data on 30,000 employees, the researchers found that overperforming didn’t do much to improve women’s scores on leadership potential. Their bosses continued to underestimate them. Part of the problem is that “potential” is a bit slippery — like vision, charisma and gravitas, all traits other studies have found people are quicker to associate with men. Subjective traits are hard to prove with performance metrics.

The impact on women’s careers adds up. “Taken together, we find that gender differences in potential ratings can explain up to 50% of the overall gender promotion gap,” the authors of that study wrote. Although 56% of entry-level workers were female, the numbers slipped at every level — to 48% of department managers, 35% of store managers and 14% of district managers.

That’s eerily similar to McKinsey and LeanIn’s latest findings on the workforce overall, and from a similar cause: Managers consistently overemphasize potential and are quicker to identify men as having it.

Why don’t managers learn to see women’s potential, especially when women keep outperforming their expectations? It stems from a phenomenon that Joan C. Williams, a longtime scholar of gender and race in the workplace, labels “prove-it-again” bias, in which women and minorities need to have better qualifications or more years of experience to reassure their bosses that they are up to the task of bigger challenges. Men are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt — and, as an Australian study from earlier this year found, to get a promotion without even asking for one.

Prove-it-again bias can be expressed in ways that don’t always seem like bias — unless you’re on the receiving end. “I didn’t realize you were such an Excel wizard” or “Wow, you’re extremely articulate” might sound like compliments. But to the recipient, the tone of surprise often communicates a hidden message: that the speaker’s expectations were depressingly low.

Such biases infiltrate not only promotion decisions but conversations about who gets which assignments. Peer-reviewed academic studies have consistently found that women and minorities get over-assigned grunt work and under-assigned glory work. When considering a woman with a wealth of experience, the decision-makers may decide that perhaps experience isn’t as necessary as they thought; what’s really needed is “fresh thinking” and “new energy”— which they then readily identify in a younger male candidate. But when considering a high-profile project for an early career woman, the conversation turns to questions like, “Has she ever run a project this big before?” and “Will clients take her seriously?” Suddenly, fresh thinking doesn’t seem so important. A man with more experience will get the assignment.

The result is that women get fewer important projects, which in turn holds them back from getting promotions. How is a person supposed to demonstrate potential if they’re not given a chance?

To make promotions fairer, companies need to be more rigorous about holding everyone to a consistent standard — to make sure that the best assignments are distributed more equitably and that when promotion season comes around, they aren’t shifting the goal posts. Discussions about subjective leadership qualities should be balanced with evidence of concrete achievements.

That will help ensure promotions go to the people who have earned them.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

People shaking hands at the end of a meeting

People shaking hands at the end of a meeting (Jacob Ammentorp Lund)

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