Are You Climbing a 'Broken Rung'? New Research Reveals the Glass Ceiling Isn't Women's Main Barrier to Advancement

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Can you break a glass ceiling if you’re climbing a “broken rung”? LeanIn’s fifth annual Women in the Workplace report (WIW)—the largest study of the state of women in corporate America—finds that it’s not the proverbial glass ceiling, but the first step on the ladder that presents the biggest obstacle to our advancement. Specifically, we’re not getting the leverage we need to level up, which continues to affect workplace parity.

Per the report:

Conventional wisdom says that women hit a “glass ceiling” as they advance that prevents them from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is the first step up to manager, or the “broken rung.” This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers. As a result, there are significantly fewer women to advance to higher levels. To get to gender parity across the entire pipeline, companies must fix the broken rung.

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Furthermore, though LeanIn’s findings, gleaned from over 68,500 employees at 329 companies, acknowledges the number of women in senior management has grown in the past five years, the majority of working women become stuck in entry-level positions. While women comprise 48 percent of entry-level roles, that number decreases significantly as careers advance, leaving only 21 percent of c-suite positions filled by female executives.

Even at the level of middle management, only 72 women are hired and promoted to manager for every 100 men. Overall, women hold only 38 percent of managerial positions; tellingly, LeanIn estimates that only “one-third of companies set gender representation targets for first-level manager roles,” meaning there isn’t adequate impetus to create parity in these crucial developmental roles. Unsurprisingly, 1 in 4 women believes her gender has impacted her ability to advance.

“Companies have the tools to [fix the broken rung],” said Kevin Sneader and Lareina Yee of McKinsey & Co. (h/t the Wall Street Journal), LeanIn’s partners in WIW’s research. “We know this because they are using them to crack the ‘glass ceiling,’ by increasing the percentage of women at the very top. Now it is time to extend those practices to the rest of the organization.”

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But wait, there’s more—or should we say less, since we’re talking about opportunity. While LeanIn’s findings represent the general state of working women, as the report digs deeper, it acknowledges that women’s experiences and mobility are far from universal; nuances that specifically affect black women and women with disabilities (let alone women who are both black and disabled).

Women’s experiences are often shaped by other aspects of their identity. Women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, and women with disabilities are having distinct—and by and large worse—experiences than women overall. Most notably, Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women.

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What can be done? If you’re thinking it’s “affirmative action,” you’re likely oversimplifying, as companies have to demonstrate a tangible commitment to maintaining gender diversity across all levels and creating support from the ground up. Significantly, LeanIn indicates that it’s not a hand-up but simply opportunity and fairness employees value most—and it’s most valuable when it comes to early advancement.

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About the author

Maiysha Kai

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. Minneapolis born, Chicago bred, New York built. Nuance is her superpower.