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Tactics to Fix the Broken Rung

Posted on June 8, 2023
Illustrated image of a man high on the ladder holding his bag of money, with a woman of color standing at the bottom, where there is a broken rung.

I just finished reading the Women in the Workplace Report 2022 co-researched and authored by Lean In and McKinsey & Company. The overarching message I want to share today is that women are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles, even more so for women of color. According to the report, women hold one spot in the C-Suite to four held by men, and the number is far more dismal for women of color, where only one in twenty is a woman of color.

There are a whole host of reasons for this gender gap. However, it begins with the first opportunity to move into a leadership position, “For every 100 men who are promoted from entry level to manager, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted.” This has become known as the “broken rung,” referring to that corporate ladder. This puts women behind from the very start, which then makes it really challenging to move ahead into more senior leadership positions.

So, what can women do to repair the broken rung?

  • As women, when we move up the ladder, we have a responsibility to ensure the rungs below us are sturdy and not broken, thus equalizing the access to leadership roles.
  • As women, we also have a responsibility to pave pathways to the ladder to ensure women get the same opportunities to engage, network, and showcase their skills as their male counterparts. And a message to the women who take the stance that you had to work hard and therefore, so do other women. We are not talking about working hard – women are always willing to role up their sleeves. Don’t put up barriers, mentor younger, less experienced women. In other words, be a guiding star versus a set of storm clouds.
  • For the male readers, Forbes pulled together 4 great recommendations based on a study published in the Journal of Men’s Studies. They are:
    • Recognize women’s contributions in both public and private settings
    • Provide more honest, accurate, and specific feedback
    • Challenge gender discrimination
    • Continue to refine and expand human resources processes and procedures
  • For all leaders, stop promoting those who are not “doers!” So many women are the doers in their respective organizations. They are the workhorses, but their male counterparts, who in some cases do far less, are the ones who get promoted.
  • All leaders also need to ensure there is no place for microaggressions, tone policing, and other tactics that often target women of color, and ultimately put-up barriers to leadership. This means understanding it, then calling it out, and finally holding offenders accountable.

What can women staring at the broken rung do to move forward?

  • First, take a page out of your male counterparts’ playbook - let go of all elements of imposter syndrome and build your confidence. Confidence is essential and if you lack it, how can you expect others to have confidence in you? It is not easy, and it takes practice – start today, using the mantra, I am good at what I do. I am successful. I am worthy. I am not afraid to take risks – you get the point! Ultimately, you need to feel NO SHAME in self-promotion!
  • Ask for help. This can come in the form of seeking a mentor to help guide you or you can seek out assistance and support from your manager. Ask questions such as, “I am thinking about my next steps and want your support and thoughts on what I need to do to ready myself for a leadership role?
  • Ask for opportunities to shine in front of leadership. This could come in the form of presenting a proposal or working on a committee, etc.
  • Keep your resume and LinkedIn profile up to date, not simply because you never know when an opportunity might present itself, but it helps you see your value.
  • Build and use your network – this is so important. Go to networking events, stay in contact with folks in your network, ask for guidance, share their good news, share your good news, etc. Many people are offered opportunities through their networks versus simply applying for a position.

To break the glass ceiling and build a culture of equity, ensure there are no more broken rungs, it takes a commitment and action from both men and women. As women, we have to support fellow women, help lift each other up, support each other in our career endeavors. Men, you also need to support women by lifting them up and supporting them in their career endeavors. It does not stop there, however, as a woman - you also have an individual responsibility to recognize and accept your value, so you can build your confidence.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Associate Dean of the Graduate College
Associate Teaching Professor, Department of Communication, College of Arts and Sciences
Drexel University
Posted in professional-development-career-tips, leadership-management-skills