As women try to rise through the ranks, they are continuously met with significant, often unseen, barriers. But is it even possible to skip the so-called “broken rung” phenomenon and tackle gender disparity in corporate America?

Fixing the “broken rung” is simple in theory but more challenging in practice. The first step is to acknowledge that it exists – and understand the reasons why. Only then is it possible to address the crisis — and it is a crisis. Lack of workplace diversity and female talent in leadership pipelines significantly hurts American firms. According to Bloomberg, S&P 500 company boards with higher gender diversity report a 15% higher return on equity[1][2].

It is possible to step up from the proverbial sticky floor and fix the “broken rung.” This piece helps identify career women’s most common challenges to career advancement and how to overcome or bypass them altogether. 

The Broken Rung in Corporate America, 2022 and Beyond

The “broken rung” refers to a problem created through inherent bias by those responsible for workplace promotions, but it’s rarely blatant. Men hold 62% of all managerial positions, while females represent only 38% [3]. Researchers once blamed this gender disparity on something they coined the “glass ceiling” phenomenon, but not anymore.

The Number of Women Managers Outnumbered by Men
In every 100 men promoted in the US to management positions, only 86 women are promoted to manager roles. When male managers significantly outnumber their female counterparts, fewer women make it into the talent pipeline, representing a depreciating volume of candidates ready to advance to higher and higher levels [4].

What Happened to the Glass Ceiling?

The term “glass ceiling” is often referred to as the invisible barrier that locks women out of C-Suite positions. In reality, the problem begins much lower down the corporate ladder. In other words, you must get your foot on the first rung of the corporate ladder to climb it.

By addressing the broken rung, women will constitute a larger volume of leadership pipelines and gain an increased opportunity for senior leadership advancement. However, there are still top-down obstacles from lack of sponsorship for women and reduced experience in areas like executive presence, perception management, etc. Addressing the broken rung is the start, not the end, to achieving true gender parity.

There’s no single solution to fixing the broken rung as it needs a multifaceted approach. At the current rate of progress, it could take generations before US corporations overcome the gender parity gap. And to do that, there must be a significant transformation in the leaders responsible for promoting [5].

The sections below highlight the common problems for organizations and their potential solutions. Below those are practical strategies you can apply right away as a career woman to minimize or skip the broken rung and step up to manager and more senior positions.

Overcome Bias in Leadership Pipelines

Let’s begin with what organizations must do to repair the broken rung, as this is where significant problems persist. Most US companies rely on existing management to recognize and promote the next generation of leaders. And, on paper, that sounds perfectly reasonable. Except, subtle unconscious bias often surrounds this process. Without specific guidelines, a hiring manager will look more favorably on candidates that are similar to themselves and align to ingrained gender stereotypes.

Finalist Pools and Hiring Decisions
Women are 79.14x more likely to be taken on by a US company when there are two or more female candidates in its finalist pool. Likewise, there’s little chance of securing that new position when only one woman is in the candidate pool [6].

Implicit Male Bias

Many male leaders do not see themselves as biased. But the truth is that implicit bias is human nature, not a conscious decision. They are unaware of their partiality, and there are no conscious assurances and procedures to address implicit bias. According to a Pinsight report, male managers are five times more likely to select men for promotion [7]. 

As noted, men still hold the majority of senior positions, especially positions with decision-making power over recruitment and promotions. For many men, their situation is to be hired or promoted by a male manager into a new position. 

In their new position, they work primarily with male peers and superiors. So when deciding who to hire or promote, naturally, they are more likely to select another man because their implicit bias makes them FEEL another man is the right candidate for the position. 

According to the same Pinsight report, even women managers are twice as likely to hire or promote a man over a woman. The same prevailing bias can affect women in this position because they are often surrounded by men in their roles. Women can begin to internalize the male bias through constant exposure and begin to reflect it. This phenomenon can silently bake this implicit bias into everyday processes and becomes systemic.

This cyclical engine of masculine leadership is fueled by that bias and will continue unless specific counteractions are implemented to interrupt the implicit bias. These counteractions are essential. Many studies have verified that true objectivism in hiring and promotion is impossible.

Women Less Likely to Negotiate a Favorable Pay Increase
Women are no longer considered more timid when asking for a raise in salary. A new study shows there are no longer any gender disparities in negotiation behavior. Despite this normalization of attitude, women are still less likely to get what they ask for than their male counterparts [8].

Partial Solution to Unconscious Bias

Increasing awareness is a useful place to start when it comes to tackling unconscious bias. But, before that happens, a company must collect data and review its current processes for hiring and promotion. That includes how managers source potential talent and promote emerging leaders. It’s also worth identifying the selection criteria for succession pipelines where they exist.

Bias Training to Address the Broken Rung

Awareness by itself is not enough to solve these issues. Unfortunately, many managers implicit bias is a blind spot, making identifying, accepting, and combatting their biases difficult. Indeed, if it were possible to train partiality out of people, this would be a problem of the past.

Still, training is critical to sowing the seed of change and often looks something like this:

  • Introduce the concept of unconscious bias
  • Highlight an awareness of partiality using data and examples
  • Showcase how bias affects decision making, especially in subtle ways
  • Review the company’s high-potential selection and succession processes
  • Continue to monitor and appraise these processes for unintentional discrimination

What bias training should not do is point a finger of blame for what is a very natural and human response. Doing so is not helpful and can often create resistance and resentment to new changes to help minimize bias. A better approach is to focus on intentional actions that help recognize and combat management biases.

Don’t Wait for Change—Make It Happen!

Skip the broken rung by making change happen - EWF International

Many US companies and policymakers are trying to fix the broken rung, realize workplace gender parity, and close the gender pay gap, but progress is slow. So, rather than accept a passive role waiting for business to change, take an active approach to addressing your personal situation.

This way, you can create your own career success. And for that, you need proven strategies to overcome your challenges and leverage your strengths as you propel your career forward.Use the strategies below as a foundation for skipping the broken rung.

Develop Leadership Soft Skills

Organizations now hold soft skills, sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence or EQ, in higher demand than work readiness and technical expertise. That’s according to a report from the US Department of Labor. Other research found that women have an advantage over men for using the soft skills critical to effective leadership [9] [10].
The six most valuable leadership soft skills to work on are:

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Self-motivation and emotional resilience
  3. Strong work ethic
  4. Networking influence
  5. Collaboration
  6. Effective oral and written communication

Strengthening your knowledge and use of soft skills, and being able to effectively communicate those personal advantages, guarantees to help you stand out as a high-potential leadership candidate. 

Development for Women in Early to Mid-Career Leadership

EWF’s Emerging Leaders Program is a curriculum-intensive program that equips women for leadership transition. Let our experts help develop your business acumen, soft skills, and knowledge needed to help you stand out and get noticed as a high-potential leader.

Learn More About EWF Leadership Development Programs

Build Your Thought Leadership

Another area of improvement that will help you stand out from other leadership prospects is developing your thought leadership. 
Thought leaders have positive reputations for using their knowledge, ideas, and insight to help others. These are critical leadership attributes for managing teams, networking, and mentoring. But what is ‘thought leadership,’ and how do you develop it?

Thought Leadership

Thought leaders are trusted individuals recognized as an authority in a particular field. These are real-world influencers, people who are highly skilled and willing to share their expertise for the benefit of others. As a result, they have a high-profile presence that benefits companies and those who work for them.

All thought leaders share these four qualities:

  • Patience
  • Dedication
  • Strategic thinking
  • Education

Thought leaders are not shy at coming forward, and they ensure the right people know the face behind the name. And, when they speak and share ideas, their words resonate and inspire those who listen. To get respected as a thought leader, build on what you are best at and share your knowledge to cultivate credibility. Stay open-minded, continually curious, and be willing to learn from others.

When It’s Time to Move On

When you cannot go through or over a career roadblock, consider going around - EWF International

What happens if you can’t step over the broken rung in your organization or negotiate an internal transition that could provide more opportunities? You may love your job and the company you work for, but if your career stalls, consider moving on. It’s never an easy decision to quit, but when doors close, windows of opportunity tend to open. Looking outside your current organization may be the only avenue available from your current work situation to pursue a more senior leadership role.

EWF One-On-One Career Coaching

EWF’s exceptional career coaching guarantees to improve performance and heighten self-awareness. Our individualized coaching shows you how to develop the skills and talents needed to define your personal superpower. EWF International’s professional coaches help you accomplish your objectives and focus your career trajectory by combining insightful feedback with accountability.

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Closing Thoughts on the Broken Rung

Change in the workplace is slow. Many companies do not see this situation as an issue. But, the pressure for change is mounting for companies to address the broken rung in promotion and gender pay gaps. New regulations, leadership changes, public relations, and even the Great Resignation are helping to push companies from complacency and denial.

It’s an ongoing and ever-changing process. Systemic and structural work is needed to tackle how worker potential is identified and transformed into new hires and promotions. Passing and implementing these changes is a challenging business. At the individual level, emerging leaders need to take an active role to equip and empower themselves by developing the right skills, building strong relationships, and seeking multiple career paths through organizations.