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Weekend Reads | Fixing the ‘Broken Rung’ on the Ladder to Career Success for Women

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s read is an updated study from corporate consultant McKinsey & Company on Women in the Workplace, its ninth annual edition of the report. It drills down into the details of the “pipeline” for women to work their way up the corporate ladder and debunks four common myths on why women are underrepresented at higher management levels.

The report begins with an interesting visualization of the pipeline, starting with entry-level positions and extending up the so-called “C-suite”: chief executive officer, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and so on, the positions at the very top of the organization chart.

As of the beginning of this year, entry-level positions are nearly equally held by men and women, with 48% of the positions held by women. Across genders, however, People of Color continue to be underrepresented. 

But we can see that as we move up the ladder, the percentage of white men grows and the percentage of women and Men of Color shrinks. In the C-suite, women hold only 28% of positions. While that is still an atrocious number, it’s actually substantially improved from 2015, when the figure was only 17%.

There continue to be raging debates about why it’s been so difficult to achieve parity in the higher ranks of corporations. The most obvious answer, of course, is system sexism and misogyny. But some have suggested other causes, some of which shift the blame back onto women. For example, it’s been proposed that women lack as much ambition as men. McKinsey’s researchers bust that myth, noting surveys that show that women are just as committed to their careers and advancement as their male colleagues.

The report also dives into the notion of the “glass ceiling,” a name for the barrier for women to achieve senior management positions. The researchers don’t deny the existence of the glass ceiling, but rather point out that there is a much bigger problem earlier in the pipeline, which they call the “broken rung”: women face their biggest barrier at the first step up from entry-level positions to manager. According to their research, for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 87 women are promoted. For Black women, the numbers are far worse. In 2018 and 2019, only 58 Black women were promoted to manager for every 100 men; in 2020 and 2021, those numbers improved, almost achieving parity, but in 2022, it reverted back to the mid-50s.

The report debunks two common explanations: Women aren’t asking for promotions, and they are more likely to step away from work. The data doesn’t support either of those claims. Instead, the report suggests the “broken rung” is primarily driven by a difference in how men and women are evaluated for promotions: Women are evaluated on past accomplishments, and men are evaluated on future potential. That means women must have a proven track record of accomplishments to earn a promotion, but men do not.

McKinsey argues that one of the key strategies for creating opportunities for women in the workplace to succeed and advance is through flexible work arrangements — both where and when to work. Another myth it debunks is that flexible work is primarily valued and desired by women and that women benefit the most. While its surveys show that slightly more women than men value opportunities to work remotely as well as control over when they work, both are in the top three valued benefits for both men and women.

The report also contains a lengthy and detailed discussion of microaggressions against women in the workplace, which ones are most common, and how women often respond to microaggressions to protect themselves.

The researchers conclude with several recommendations for improving women’s workplace experience and their progression through the pipeline, including embracing flexible work, addressing microaggressions, and “fixing the broken rung, once and for all.”

Women in the Workplace 2023

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by fizkes/

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