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The Broken Rung' Is Stunting Career Growth for Women of Color


A woman working on a laptop in front of a window.

​Women of color are facing declining promotion rates despite career gains made in recent years, according to a new survey of more than 27,000 employees by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org. A workplace phenomenon called "the broken rung" may be partly to blame.

The report, published in October, found that women's overall representation in the C-suite grew from 17 percent to 28 percent since the annual study began in 2015. However, women of color face a steep drop-off in representation as their careers progress:

  • Representation among women of color falls by two-thirds as they ascend the leadership pipeline.
  • For every 100 male employees promoted from entry-level jobs to managerial positions, only 87 women received a similar promotion. For women of color, only 73 receive that first promotion for every 100 men who ascend into such roles.
  • 1 in 4 C-suite leaders are women, while just 1 in 16 C-suite leaders are women of color.

"We saw women of color promotion rates go up in 2020 and 2021, likely due to the heightened attention on race and equity in our nation," said co-author Alexis Krivkovich, senior partner at McKinsey. "But this year, it seems that focus may have waned."

Krivkovich noted the "glass ceiling" is widely discussed when referring to barriers women face as they attempt to ascend the leadership ladder. SHRM research from 2022 highlighted some of these challenges, including the failure of male managers to support women.

But McKinsey data shows the most pernicious challenge to parity in the workplace is the broken rung—the gender disparity in the first step up from entry level to manager, where women immediately lose ground to men in career advancement.

As a result of the broken rung, women fall behind and can't catch up.

"Fixing the broken rung should be achievable for all companies, and it should absolutely be a goal to promote men and women at equal rates," Krivkovich added. "The first step is digging into your data and really understanding the root cause drivers for the broken rung at your company, and then identifying solutions that will address the right challenges."

Microaggressions Are Not So 'Micro'

The report also illustrated the prevalence of microaggressions against women at work:

  • Nearly half of women experience microaggressions at work that call their competence and abilities into question.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to be interrupted and hear comments on their emotional state.
  • Women are 1.5 times more likely than men to have a colleague take credit for their work.

Women with traditionally marginalized identities are at greater risk for experiencing microaggressions, per the report. For example, Asian and Black women are over three times more likely than women overall to be confused with someone of the same race and ethnicity.

Further, most women who face microaggressions (73 percent) adjust the way they look or act in an effort to protect themselves from harmful comments. Women who experience microaggressions and self-shield are over three times more likely than those who don't to experience burnout and think about quitting their jobs.

Krivkovich said microaggressions can take a toll on employees and damage business outcomes because these workers are less likely to take risks, propose new ideas or raise concerns about the organization.

"Women who experience microaggressions are less likely to feel psychologically safe, more likely to tone down what they say to avoid being unlikeable, and less likely to speak up and share an opinion that might label them as difficult," she explained.

Ella Washington, professor of practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, said it is important for companies to educate the workforce on perils of microaggressions and learn from their own past mistakes.

"Owning and acknowledging a microaggression may feel incredibly uncomfortable. But consider the impact of recurring experiences of microaggressions for marginalized groups and the toll that takes on one's ability to build workplace relationships and show up authentically every day."

Managers Play Key Role in Supporting Women at Work

The McKinsey report also revealed that workplace flexibility is allowing women to pursue their professional ambitions: 1 in 5 women said that flexibility has helped them stay at their organization or avoid reducing their hours.

Krivkovich recommended that HR professionals also understand the power of managers in driving organizational change. They are on the front lines of employees' experiences, playing a critical role in fostering inclusion, equity and diversity, and ensuring their well-being, she said.

"This can only happen when managers are properly supported in these roles," Krivkovich explained. "We recommend providing clarity on manager responsibilities, regular training and upskilling through ongoing education, and ample resources to do their job well."

However, the biggest takeaway for HR professionals is to understand that investing in, advancing and supporting women in their workplace, particularly women of color, can benefit both the employee and business as a whole, Krivkovich explained.

"The data show that [promoting women] is about leveling the playing field," she added. "Your organization has hired this great talent, and now you need to give them the opportunity to pursue their ambitions."


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