Gender study: To shatter the glass ceiling, fix the ‘broken rung’

More women are in the C-suite than five years ago, but the management ladder remains a huge obstacle to true parity.

Studies show that women continue to make progress advancing into corporate jobs, but that discrimination remains rampant [Thomas Barwick/Getty Images]

There are more women in the C-suites of major companies than there were five years ago, a new study shows.

But the “broken rung” on the ladder to top management jobs has helped stall gender parity in the workplace and led women – especially those of colour – to continue to be “underrepresented at every level”.

The 2019 Women in the Workplace study, conducted by McKinsey & Company and, examined data from 329 companies that employ more than 13 million people.

The report surveyed more than 68,500 employees about their experiences in the workplace and it draws on previous data to show what has and has not changed since 2015.

“It’s quite exciting to see that there is reason for hope,” Jess Huang, a McKinsey partner and author of the study, told Al Jazeera.

“We’ve made gains at the C-suite,” Huang said. “Representation there has increased by 24 percent over the last five years.”

“When companies really double down and work on these issues, they can make progress,” she added. “On the flip side, there are places where we haven’t seen much progress at all.”

One area where there has been a lack of progress is first-level management positions, which researchers have dubbed the “broken rung”. For every 100 men promoted to those roles, the study found, only 72 white women were promoted. The numbers are even worse for women of colour – only 58 black women and 68 Latina women were promoted for every 100 white men.

Part of the problem, Huang said, is due to lack of awareness on the part of both employees and human resources departments about the gaps. Companies also have to understand the issues before they can remedy them.

“They’ve been focusing a lot of energy on taking action at more senior levels and they haven’t carried that down to the manager level,” Huang said, suggesting that promotions and hiring practices could be more fair and inclusive.

Gender stereotypes

Some of the disparity in who is chosen for management roles comes from stereotypes about women, said Caitlyn Collins, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St Louis and the author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

“Women, by definition, are seen as less capable and less committed at work because they are associated with all these gender-essentialist beliefs,” Collins told Al Jazeera.

Collins pointed to research on status discrimination by Shelley Correll at Stanford University – studies that probed stereotypes about how women are naturally more emotional, nurturing or focused on relationships than men. Women can be penalised if they are perceived as behaving outside of those stereotypes.

“They’ve defied these gendered beliefs about femininity,” Collins explained, adding that women now are generally perceived as more competent but also often as “aggressive and pushy”.

Rachel Thomas, the cofounder and CEO of, the organisation behind the Women in the Workplace study, said meaningful change is possible.

Thomas emphasised setting targets for diversity, giving employees training to spot unconscious bias and making sure there are consistent practices for evaluating people.

Myth of ‘opting out’?

The study also discredited two commonly held beliefs about why women are not promoted in the workplace: the belief that they are opting out to have children, or that they are simply not asking for raises.

In fact, less than two percent of people who said they were planning to leave their companies did so because of family obligations, and women are “asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men”, the study found.

The study also showed that women and men are beginning to take paid family leave to care for children at similar rates.

Thomas hopes that “a lot of the stigma or kind of age-old stereotypes around being a new parent … will start to fall away.”

But that has yet to happen. While the average length of paternity leave has quickly increased from four weeks in 2016 to seven weeks in 2019, average maternity leave has remained stagnant at 10 weeks. And among employees who take leave, “women are more likely to say they’ve had negative impacts on their career trajectory,” Huang said.

Microaggressions at work

The study also found that while the majority of women have reported experiencing microaggressions – everyday slights rooted in bias – there is a disconnect between people recognising and reporting them. In the study, 33 percent of women and 11 percent of men said they had seen or heard biased behaviour towards women in the past year, but only one-third of people say they personally spoke up about it.

Perspectives about what constitutes bias may also be impacted by broader trends in US political culture, and attitudes towards women in the workplace do not happen in a vacuum, Collins said. The rise of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements – as well as the words of leaders like US President Donald Trump – have also influenced workplace dynamics.

Collins added that having Trump in a position of such institutional power “sends a message to people that [disrespect] is acceptable”.

But positive changes have an impact, too, including the record number of women serving in Congress, Thomas added.

“We will have more women standing on a stage running for president [on Tuesday night] than we’ve ever had before,” said Thomas, cautioning not to “lose sight of what’s happening day-to-day in the workplace”.

“Although we do see some bright spots at the top of the pipeline, we know that women continue to be significantly underrepresented.”

Source: Al Jazeera