The Broken Rung Keeping Women Off the Corporate Ladder

Business & Career

Nov 12

broken rung corporate ladderWomen will always struggle to climb to the top of the corporate ladder as long as the first rungs are broken. 

We’ve talked about the recent Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey and LeanIn before, but there’s one aspect of the report that deserves a closer look: the broken rung.

broken rung corporate ladder

What is the broken rung?

We’ve all heard of the glass ceiling, that invisible barrier keeping women from making it into top management positions. The broken rung, however, starts a lot earlier. 

‘The broken rung’ refers to the obstacles keeping women from advancement right at the start of the corporate ladder. 

“The biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager,” states the report, which looks at the state of women in corporate America.

“For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired. This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers.”

Extrapolate that down the line, and men end up holding 62 percent of manager positions, while women only hold 38 percent. When there are fewer women than men in lower management positions, there are fewer women getting promoted to senior management positions. 

No wonder women aren’t making it up the corporate ladder. And to compound the issue, many companies are unaware of the problem.

“[B]oth HR leaders and employees underestimate the scope of the problem and its effect on the representation of women at senior levels in their organisation,” states the report.

“More than half of HR leaders and employees think their company will reach gender parity in leadership over the next 10 years. In reality, we are many decades away from reaching gender parity at the highest ranks—and may never reach it at all.”

Time to break out the tools.

broken rung corporate ladder

Fixing the broken rung is the only way for women to get up that corporate ladder, and for companies to eventually achieve true gender parity.

“If women are promoted and hired to first-level manager at the same rates as men, we will add one million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years.”

5 steps companies can take to fix the broken rung.

1. Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management.

The report suggests that given how important it is to fix the broken rung, companies should set bold public targets to grow the number of women in management positions.

2. Increase diversity in hiring and promotions.

Most companies are aware of the need for diversity at higher levels of management, but are less stringent on promoting diversity at the lower levels—and it matters. The study shows that when two or more women are included among the candidates, the likelihood that a woman will get the promotion rises dramatically.

3. Train evaluators about unconscious biases.

An unconscious bias can make a big difference when evaluators are making hiring decisions—and while some companies take this into account a higher levels, rarely are these issues addressed at lower management. 

With studies indicating clearly that we tend to overestimate men’s achievements and underestimate women’s, this kind of training is sorely needed to reset the balance.

4. Develop clear and consistent evaluation criteria.

Along with bias training, companies need to ensure that their evaluation criteria don’t perpetuate social biases. Clear evaluation criteria applied consistently can help prevent bias from creeping into the hiring and evaluation process. 

5. Put more women in line for the step up to manager.

If we want more women at senior management levels, it’s critical that they get experience at the lower levels first. 

“The building blocks to make this happen are not new,” says the report, pointing to leadership training, sponsorship and high-profile assessments, “but many companies need to provide them with a renewed sense of urgency.”

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