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Missed “Marketplace” with Kai Ryssdal on air? Catch up here! Listen now

Before the glass ceiling, women face “broken rung” on corporate ladder

Rose Conlon and Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 15, 2019
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Zackary Drucker/Broadly

Before the glass ceiling, women face “broken rung” on corporate ladder

Rose Conlon and Sabri Ben-Achour Oct 15, 2019
Zackary Drucker/Broadly
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The good news, for women in corporate America, is that things are slowly improving at the top. McKinsey & Co. surveyed over 68,500 employees at 329 companies for their annual Women in the Workplace report with LeanIn.Org, and found that more women now hold senior leadership positions than in the past. 

Women still battle a “glass ceiling” at the highest levels of business, but there are notable gains in the C-suite, where female representation has increased from 17% in 2015 to 21% today.

The bad news is that it’s hard for women to start climbing the corporate ladder in the first place.

“We do a great job bringing women into companies. But a couple years later, when they’re up for their first promotion, we see a huge disparity,” said Lareina Yee, chief diversity and inclusion officer at McKinsey & Co.

Dubbed the “broken rung” effect, this means that for every 100 entry-level men promoted or hired into a manager position, only 72 women are selected for similar positions. For women of color, the disparity is starker: only 68 Latina women and 58 Black women reach manager-level positions for every 100 of their male colleagues.

The inequity is happening so early in women’s careers that differences in performance or experience can’t explain it, Yee said. Neither can job attrition rates — women aren’t leaving companies any more frequently than their male counterparts. Similarly, promotion request and salary negotiation rates have been on par between men and women since 2015.

So what’s keeping women out of corporate management?

“Implicit bias certainly plays a role,” Yee said. “But it’s a lot of different things.”

Part of the problem is that many companies don’t even realize the disparity exists. There’s usually energy put toward equity at the entry-level recruitment stage — and a spotlight on high-level promotions. More attention to hiring decisions between those extremes could help turn things around.

So could destigmatizing the use of workplace flexibility programs. Over the last five years, data shows more and more companies are offering paid parental leave and the option to work from home some or all of the time.

“The challenge is that most men and women believe that there’s some professional risk to taking advantage of these flexibility programs,” Yee said. “For women in particular, and for women who have young families, that hits particularly hard.”

A majority of employees surveyed had either become a new parent or dealt with a significant family or personal health issue in the last five years. But only about half of those employees took leave from their job to deal with the issue. One reason given by those who continued to work without interruption was concern about negative career impacts.

Yee said many leaders have expressed a desire to improve gender equality at their organizations. And, while we’re beginning to see results for women at the top, the rest of the picture has been pretty dismal in recent years.

“The next discussion is, ‘How did you create that for women at the top?’ Because you need to offer that all the way through your company — especially for that first promotion.”

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