Blog Post

Why Women Are Still Struggling to Climb the Corporate Ladder

Cornerstone Editors

International Women’s Day is Sunday, March 8, and there’s a lot that female professionals ought to be proud of. For one, there are more women starting their own businesses—and succeeding. From 2007 to 2018, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 58%. They’re also highly profitable: A recent Boston Consulting Group Report reported that if men and women were treated equally as entrepreneurs, global GDP would rise by 3% and boost the global economy by $2.5 trillion. In fact, women consistently score higher than their male counterparts in most leadership skills. And when it comes to getting a seat at the table, women are seeing a higher level of representation than ever before. According to research from Grant Thorton, 29% of senior management roles were held by women last year—the highest number ever on record.

But despite this progress, they continue to lag behind when compared to their male counterparts. Women make up 44% of the overall S&P 500 labor force and 36% of first- or mid-level officials and managers at those organizations. Yet they make up only 25% of executive- and senior-level management. What’s more, women hold only 20% of board seats and account for just 6% of CEOs.

This imbalance isn’t new. For years, women have lacked representation at the highest levels. That’s especially true for women of color, who make up only 3.5% of board rooms for the S&P 1500. So why do these inequalities persist? More often than not, the challenges that women face can be linked to the "broken rung," a term that refers to companies’ failure to empower women in entry-level roles to grow into management positions. Fixing it is a necessary step toward achieving equality. According to a report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company, if women are promoted to first-time managers at the same rate as men, there will be one million more women in corporate management positions over the next five years.

Luckily, organizations are already equipped with the tools they need to turn this goal into a reality.

Communicate D&I Goals and Get Internal Stakeholders On Board

When you’re hiring for any position—and especially entry- and mid-level ones—it’s important to set clear goals for diversity and inclusion. Employees who hold more junior positions will eventually be qualified to move into managerial roles—and they’ll be looking for opportunities to do just that. LinkedIn reports that 94% of individuals would stay at a company longer if the organization invested in their careers. As a result, ensuring your candidate pool contains more women from the get-go is crucial if you want to see more of them land in leadership spots.

Once you develop a diverse hiring strategy, communicate it internally to members of the HR team and to C-suite decision-makers. Make the case for recruiting more women at all levels so you can receive buy-in from all internal stakeholders and gain access to resources that will enable you to recruit most effectively.

After you hire and onboard employees, pay close attention to how they’re adjusting to their roles. Meet with associates early on and talk to them about their career goals, ensuring they have access to the same opportunities as their colleagues from the moment they begin working.

Many career growth opportunities stem from internal networking activities. And while some employees will make connections at work naturally, others may be a bit more reluctant to build bonds with colleagues. It’s also a gendered issue: Men often benefit more from networking activities at work, and sometimes these activities are centered around a "bro" culture that doesn’t always welcome women.

Luckily, there are other ways to foster mentorship. For example, an employee-mentor program can empower female associates and early managers to build relationships with their senior colleagues. These programs not only provide women an opportunity to make meaningful professional connections within your organization, they also give them the opportunity to ask questions and gain new skills.

Establish Clear and Consistent Evaluation Criteria

At many companies, the promotion process can seem rather opaque. This lack of transparency is often frustrating for employees—especially those working hard to get to the next level. To ensure all workers have an equal opportunity to move up, focus on establishing evaluation criteria for managers to follow when making promotion decisions. This approach not only helps managers, it also offers employees greater visibility into the process and gives workers the tools they need to reach their potential—regardless of gender.

Require Managers to Participate in Unconscious Bias Trainings

Offering managers guidance around how to evaluate employees certainly contributes to a more just promotion structure, but fixing the systematic problem of the "broken rung" will require your HR department to challenge managers on how they hire, fire and promote employees. That starts with evaluating their own inherent biases—and taking steps to ensure those preferences don’t impact their employees’ growth and development.

Managing unconscious bias is easier said than done. That’s because all humans have preconceived notions—even if they don’t necessarily act upon those judgments.

The scientific explanation for unconscious bias is simple: The brain can consciously process 40 pieces of content per second, while it can unconsciously process 11 million pieces of content. We do a lot of thinking that we’re not aware of, meaning we often come to certain conclusions without realizing it.

One of the most common examples of unconscious bias is gender bias. When women are strong and assertive, they are often perceived as "aggressive" while men with the same qualities are seen as confident. As a result, a female employee who demonstrates these attributes might be passed up for a promotion because of their gender, due to a manager’s unconscious bias.

Knowing how to spot these fixed assumptions is critical to building and maintaining a more diverse workforce and fixing the "broken rung." Start by incorporating unconscious bias training into your L&D efforts and educating managers on how to minimize their own judgments.

Helping women move up the corporate ladder will likely require planning, communication and, in some cases, changes in policy and structure. If you’re an HR manager working to bridge the gender gap at your organization, you certainly have your work cut out for you. But with the right strategy and resources, you can empower more women to reach their full professional potential.

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