Our Urgent Need to Fix the “Broken Rung”


This week McKinsey & Co. together with LeanIn.Org, released their report, Women in the Workplace 2021.

The Women in the Workplace study commenced in 2015 and this is the seventh report published. The study examines the state of corporate women in America, and with a rigorous collection of data and thoughtful analysis, delivers important insights and recommendations for companies and leaders.

This year, the pandemic backdrop is ever-present, and some of the big themes include:

  • Burnout – employees are experiencing burnout at record levels with significant impact from the COVID-19 pandemic, and women are more affected than men
  • The “broken rung” continues to hold women back from first-line management positions disproportionately (though there is progress in recent years)
  • Women managers are doing more to support their teams’ well-being – particularly through the pandemic 
  • Women managers are out performing men as leaders, yet women are still being left behind in the pipeline of promotions
  • Critical wellbeing and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work is mostly being done by women, with its value often overlooked
  • Allyship needs further work to move toward real action from Leaders
  • Insightful recommendations are provided for companies to continue to build programs that enhance gender diversity, equity and inclusion.

The report also includes a selection of special narratives focused on intersectional experiences for Asian Women, Women with disabilities, Lesbian and bisexual women, Latinas, and Black Women.

For women from these groups, the impacts and outcomes of slower progression, as well as their experience of micro-aggressions and other inappropriate workplace behaviors are worse than for white, straight, able women.

There is a lot to digest. And a lot to contemplate.

You can access the 62-page report by clicking here. (Note that you will need to sign up as a subscriber to McKinsey if you are not already – it is free to do so). 

The “Broken Rung”

Looking back, I was pretty naïve when I first started my career at 23.

I had been brought up to believe that I could do and be anything I wanted.

I went to an all girls’ secondary school in Melbourne, Australia. 

As a math/science student, moving forward to study engineering seemed the most natural thing in the world for me to do. I moved from a high school class size of 100 girls, to a first-year engineering class size of over 1000, with women making up just a little over 10% of the population. I learned then that I would be a minority in my field, but my youthful optimism meant that I had no doubt that merit and hard work would be what counted the most.

The McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report shows that in 2021, the broken rung is ever-present. (A Bloomberg article also published this week paints a similar, if not worse, snapshot for Australia. You can link to that article here.)

The broken rung concept is the idea that statistically speaking, women are less likely to be promoted to a first-line manager role than men. This then cascades up through all the levels of management with fewer and fewer women being available for selection at more senior levels. 

In 2021, in the US, women represent 48% of the overall entry level population for the corporate sector. There is a deficit in the pipeline immediately at the first-line manager level, as women hold 41% of those roles, though this disparity has improved over the past few years. When engineering and product businesses are separated out, the entry-level proportion of women is lower at just 34%, with only 26% of those first-line manager positions held by women.

See pages 8, 9, & 12 of the report for more information.

I entered the workforce at an interesting time, almost 27 years ago in Australia. At that time, with the cohort I was hired with, we almost doubled the female population of engineers at the Australian affiliate of the company I worked at, and we were still very much a minority group in the population. For context, I have spent most of my career working between Australia and the US, with most of the second half of my career to date spent in the US. 

During the past 20+ years, I have seen the numbers of women at entry-level as well as in first-line roles reach much, much higher levels than when I started.  I would have guessed that in 2021, female first-line managers were on par with the pool availability. 

This ‘guessing’ that things seem okay, is actually part of the issue, and why reports such as the McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report are so helpful. With the snap-shot of actual data, and the year on year trends presented in black and white, leaders and companies are compelled to take actions, which they are doing - as evidenced by the improvement trends seen in the data – and it is really encouraging. However …

In addition to the broken rung at the first-line manager level, corporate pipeline representation by gender, shows a clear continued fall-off for women throughout the more senior levels. There is a really insightful graphic with this data shown on Page 8 of the report.

And it does not surprise me. 

It is consistent with my own observations over the past two decades.

The improvements feel slow. The theory that we need to wait as the pipeline fills, and have faith that change is imminent, feels weak … especially since I’ve been hearing this for more than a decade.

So, what is going on?

As I consider my own personal experiences – as both an employee and as a senior leader participating in promotion and candidate selection processes – many of the insights presented in the report really resonate with me.

There are two in particular that I will mention here.

Unconscious bias:

An essential step to repair the broken rung is for senior leaders and middle managers to understand and respond to the challenge of unconscious bias. The insidiously subtle nature of unconscious bias makes it challenging for even well-intentioned leaders to identify its presence in their organizations and in themselves.

Bias is a human condition, and in and of itself, isn’t bad. However, since we cannot really escape it, we need tools and techniques to keep it in check. We need to be honest with ourselves and with one another about this. This is intrinsically tough to do – we need to develop cultures where courage, and vulnerability, along with failing and learning fast are the norm if we are to make progress.

On the bright side, the McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org report shows a substantial increase in the number of companies putting more emphasis on checking for bias through timely training and discussion ahead of recruiting drives, as well as ahead of internal performance assessment processes. This is really great to see!

However, the realities of women continuing to face small but frequent inequities in their day to day work experiences means that skills to recognize and interrupt unconscious bias still need to be enhanced. Particularly for Leaders, as they are the ones that set the tone for the subtleties of workplace cultures and behaviors. Strategies to address unconscious bias must be woven into the everyday culture of our corporate workplaces.

Mentoring, Coaching and Development Support:

Many companies have strong processes in place for mentoring, coaching and development support – but I wonder if there is enough targeted focus for women, as well as for other diverse groups, in terms of truly supporting the leadership progression pipeline.

The specific experiences described in the McKinsey & Co and LeanIn.Org report of the day to day workplace challenges women are facing, such as their competency and authority being questioned in group settings, the reduced likelihood of women to be recognized for the important work that they are (more likely than men to be) doing to support their teams’ wellbeing and to advance DEI efforts, and the double bind women often face when standing up to these concerns, as coming across as aggressive and defensive, feel all too familiar to me. 

In my mid-thirties, as the career path I had enjoyed thus far with great advancement, began to plateau, I experienced a growing sense of self-doubt and uncertainty. These feelings were fueled by workplace behaviors and stressors that made me feel that I couldn’t measure up. And honestly, while not truly understanding it, my response was to work harder and harder. 

I was dangerously close to burning out, but I knew I was floundering and something had to give. Drawing on the resiliency that I had left, I sought out my own external coaching and development, in addition to what was available to me at my company. Perhaps it was a part of adulthood development, and perhaps it was the perspective that an external coach could provide me, but circumstances changed for me as I learned to ignore trying to please ‘them’ and moved towards pleasing myself.

My personal and career satisfaction increased wildly, and the level of impact I could make soared. Remarkably, my career advanced further when I thought it impossible to break through the plateau where I’d been stalled for years. I learned that the new blueprint I had put together for myself was the support that I needed for my own success.

The deeply personal aspect of this discussion for me, and many women I know, is the sense of identity and purpose that our work brings us. I don’t deny my privilege for the opportunity of higher education given to me by my determined working-class parents, nor the good fortune I have had for the opportunities that have come my way, to build a rewarding leadership career, though I will say, I’ve worked very hard to earn my position.

For years I have worked to repair the broken rung. It is my passion and mission to leverage my hard-earned lessons so that I can help others develop confidence early on, and have the opportunity to build their own purposeful and meaningful careers.

There are two distinct actions needed:

  1. 1
    Provide tailored growth and development support for young women with leadership potential that recognizes the specific issues and challenges women leaders face. This development and support needs to be available for several years during the transition into leadership.
  2. 2
    Equip all of our emerging leaders with the capabilities they will need as tomorrow’s senior leaders to face the complex DEI challenges. Remembering that the skills, knowledge, and mindset needed for managing the amalgam of employee engagement and performance include social and emotional intelligence, compassion for people, and a learning approach that embraces curiosity and psychological safety.

Of course, individual personal and leadership development is only one side of the equation.

Companies need to be deliberate and systematic in their approach for truly bringing DEI initiatives to bear through their strategic choices, systems, and processes. Employee engagement and talent management processes are complex with many moving parts, but what gets measured, gets managed. Developing objectives for progressing the talent in female and other underrepresented groups, along with close monitoring of key metrics are critical for solving the broken rung issue.

Pic of Women in Conference Room for Our Urgent Need to Fix the Broken Rung Blog Post

What’s next?

Organizations should closely consider the insights and learnings from the Women in the Workplace Report recommendations and carefully review the health and completeness of their own systems, processes, and metrics - including senior leader accountability measures and incentives.

The ongoing state of women being left behind, as well as other pandemic fueled issues we are seeing, such as ‘the great resignation’, employees everywhere demanding more flexibility with hybrid or working from home models, and the higher expectations of Generation Z now entering the workforce, all point to companies needing to be up to date with their thinking, if they are going to be able to attract and retain the talent they need to run their businesses. 

Indeed, the work needed to change our corporate cultures and policies so that the workplace is more supportive and flexible for individuals, as well as advancing DEI and allyship, is shown in the report to be disproportionately borne by women managers. And this work is often overlooked.  If this work continues to go unrecognized, and the very leaders doing this work choose to move to more progressive organizations, or leave the corporate world altogether, businesses that haven’t addressed these concerns, are at risk of losing developed talent, as well as finding themselves ill-equipped to build the cultures they need.

The corporations that get this right become employers of choice, and will accordingly have access to greater pools of talent. This will include high capacity women leaders as well as the expanding group of employees with increasing expectations for flexibility, compassionate leadership, and the freedom to bring their whole selves to work.

Closing Thoughts

These issues are so important. And there are many nuances to consider. 

As I look back at my 23 year-old self, excited and full of big dreams, I am more compelled than I’ve ever been to continue my leadership journey focused on enabling and empowering the leaders of today’s 23 year old women who I know have big dreams of their own, and have the energy and optimism to take on the challenges in front of them. And in turn, these leaders will inspire their people, and so on.

I envision a future where corporate cultures are places where people are truly bringing their whole selves to work, with a sense of belonging and a freedom to bring their best to their work. It is my sincere belief that we need to focus on growing and developing today’s emerging leaders to achieve this.

By supporting leaders early in their careers, we can equip them to be the future senior leaders we need, who will create and shape the diverse, inclusive and heart-centered corporate cultures of the future.

Supporting you on your leadership journey,

Magenta Roads, Principal, Carla Santamaria

PS. Please share if you found this helpful.


Broken Rung, Career Progression Pipeline, LeanIn.Org, McKinsey & Co, Women in Leadership, Women in the Workplace 2021

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