How the “broken rung” problem stops women getting ahead at work

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Anna Brech
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A woman in the boardroom

A new report has identified an invisible, yet potent, barrier that is holding women back at work – with ripple effects that can be felt all the way up to senior leadership level.

We’re on first-name terms with the usual suspects that get between women and the boardroom: pregnancy discrimination, workplace sexism and the gender pay gap linger as obstacles to be overcome.

But there are certain barriers that we’re less familiar with – and they’re all the more dangerous for being unseen.

The so-called “broken rung” is a major problem facing women right now, according to a revealing new report on the status of female leaders. 

Women in the Workplace is an annual study co-authored by consulting firm McKinsey and Company, and the organisation Lean In. It acts as a barometre to the workplace progression of women in the States, using data from over 500 companies and quarter of a million people surveyed on their experiences. 

A woman holding a mug
Women are being held back on the first step of the career ladder

The 2019 report came out this week and contained several nuggets of hopeful news for aspiring female leaders. 

There’s been a 15% jump in US companies adding women to their C-suite since 2015, although only one in 25 of C-suite executives is a woman of colour. The data also indicates that senior-level women are being promoted on average at a higher rate than men, with record levels of women simultaneously being hired at director level.

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But – as always in the mired world of women’s career progression – there’s a catch. The report’s authors have identified “the broken rung” as an invisible hurdle that is stalling women in their first step up the career ladder.

According to researchers: “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.”

Unsurprisingly, this oversight at manager level has a knock-on effect that can be felt all the way to top-line positions. 

“Since men significantly outnumber women at the manager level, there are significantly fewer women to hire or promote to senior managers,” the report says. “The number of women decreases at every subsequent level.”

 Women, therefore, face a catch-22 situation. Even as more female leaders are hired and promoted at senior levels, the broken rung issue means there are simply not enough women coming up the ranks to fill the gap. 

A woman in a boardroom
Fixing the broken rung would have a powerful impact at all levels

In the current situation, women cannot catch up and gender parity will persist. If companies can fix their broken rung, however, they will set off a powerful chain reaction that carries through to greater female representation in senior leadership.

The report by McKinsey and Lean In suggests five key ways of doing this:

- Set a goal for getting more women into first-level management
- Require diverse slates for hiring and promotions
- Put evaluators through unconscious bias training
- Establish clear evaluation criteria
- Put more women in line for the step up to manager

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By following these steps, individual firms will begin to glue together their broken rungs – and the impact of doing so cannot be underestimated.

“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,” the report concludes.

Powerful stuff indeed.

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Images: Getty, Brook Lark and Mimi Thian on Unsplash


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.

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