The Corporate Ladder Under Maintenance: The “Broken Rung” and Its Impact on the Gender Gap

The business world is not a fair playing field for everyone, despite all the progress made surrounding work relations in the past century. If you’ve overheard discussions about disadvantages professional women deal with at work, or you’ve experienced these issues yourself, you probably want to know why.

What is the Broken Rung?

You may have heard the term “glass ceiling” in the past, a term that refers to an invisible barrier that prevents many women from being promoted to high corporate positions.

The “broken rung” is a more updated version of this phenomenon. It replaces the old “glass ceiling” and more accurately describes the experiences women have in the professional world. The barrier starts influencing opportunities to excel far earlier than the last jump to a corporate-level position. The idea of a broken rung applies to the “corporate ladder” in general, and a broken rung creates an incredible (and dangerous) climbing challenge.

Rather than the barrier existing high up in “the glass ceiling,” obstacles start getting in the way right from the beginning.

The Broken Rung Disproportionately Affects Women

The existence of the broken rung metaphor affects women as a result of management biases. Individuals who oversee evaluating employees and offering promotions tend to prioritize men in the workplace over women, even when both promotion candidates are equally qualified. In some cases, even if the female candidate has more qualifications, the male candidate will still be chosen by management.

In fact, women only account for 38% of managerial positions across an array of industries.

Unfortunately, the biases women deal with in the workplace are not always apparent, as management teams may not even be aware of the unfair behaviors taking place. Many of us don’t recognize our own implicit biases – this is known as “unconscious bias” and it’s actively oppressing women’s leadership efforts today.

And, when no measures exist to question motives and address these biases, they continue to affect the way people think and behave unchecked.

The Gender Gap

With men holding 62% of leadership positions, they are more often in the position to offer promotions and secure new hires. This is where unconscious bias becomes an issue. According to one study, male managers are five times more likely to choose another man for a promotion than they are to choose a woman. On top of that, men who are seeking promotions or higher-level positions tend to favor the idea of being promoted or hired by a male manager. This is known as “cognitive evaluation” – people are naturally more inclined towards people who look and act like them because they are more comfortable, assuming they already understand the person who is like them as opposed to someone who seems different at initial evaluation.

You can see how this creates a barrier for women trying to move up – the odds created by bias, conscious or unconscious, are stacked against them. And without support to overcome this missing link from entry level into management, it becomes exceedingly difficult to rise through the rest of the ranks.

What Can You Do?

For leaders who want to play an active role in repairing the broken rung, bias training is a must. Training procedures need to effectively show participants how to identify and correct discriminatory beliefs and processes.

Furthermore, once participants adopt new thought processes and procedural techniques, management teams need to be willing to address and correct behaviors pointed out to them.

To be effective, bias training needs to use facts and data to highlight workplace inequalities, explain the concept of unconscious bias, discuss ways these preconceptions influence decision-making, and provide advice for monitoring and evaluating current and future systems at work.

And it is imperative to make clear – the point of bias training is not to blame management for their biases but to teach them how to recognize them and take steps to actively change gears. And the training needs to be an open and inclusive group effort – it cannot be set up as an ‘us’ against ‘them’ scenario.

In simple terms, it aims to:

  • Identify an issue
    (“This problem exists and we didn’t know about it before,”)
  • Address the causes/effects
    (“It has led to X, Y, and Z problems and it needs to change,”)
  • Pursuing solutions
    (“How are we going to avoid making the same mistakes again?”)

Laying out the goal in this way and focusing on setting new actionable intentions doesn’t place blame on anyone. Instead, it presents an opportunity for EVERYONE to improve.

Approaching a challenge with maturity and an open mind is the best way to overcome the hardships brought on by biases existing in the workplace. Only taking steps toward change will lead to progress.