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The Broken Rung: How It Affects Advancement for Women in the Workforce

Women have always faced obstacles in the workforce:

  • A culture that favors hiring and promotion of men

  • Having to shoulder the lion’s share of parenting and household duties

  • The difficulty of restarting a career after being out for a while to raise children

All present barriers to women’s career advancement. Single and married women alike face them, as do mothers and women who do not have children, but they fall hardest on single women.

For women of color, it’s even more challenging as they face systemic and even outright discrimination based not only on their gender but on their skin color as well. It’s especially difficult for Black women because racial violence has spiked over the last several years, with a plurality of it directed against Black people.

COVID has only made all of this worse by compounding the challenges women already face. Let’s take a look at what’s happening, how COVID has worsened it, and steps organizations can take to address and improve the situation.

What Is “The Broken Rung”?

When a ladder has a broken rung, it’s more difficult to get from the rung below it to the one above it. Unlike the glass ceiling, which we look at as a barrier to women advancing into high-level management positions, women are more likely to encounter the broken rung in the workforce when they’re in entry-level positions.

If a woman is passed over for an early promotion or exits the workforce temporarily and then returns, she can get stuck on the ladder, so to speak. That’s the broken rung.

The consequences extend to more than just one person’s career. With women holding just 38% of positions at the management and executive levels, there’s less diversity and inclusion in the workplace, particularly when it comes to women of color. And because men are more likely to promote other men and women are more likely to promote other women, there’s less advancement and representation of women at every level in a company.

How COVID Has Made the Problem Worse

The most recent Women in the Workplace study found that in January 2020, women were slowly but steadily finding increased representation at the leadership level in corporate America.

Then COVID struck.

Life was already stressful enough for working women, especially working mothers, but when businesses that had to close or massively scale back laid off millions of workers, a disproportionate number of them were women.

Women who kept their jobs didn’t have it much easier. When schools and childcare centers closed, someone had to stay home with the kids. The vast majority of the time, that was the mothers. Many women had no choice but to leave their jobs, often bringing severe financial distress for their families.

Mothers fortunate enough to work from home burned out in short order trying to balance the demands of work, online schooling, and maintaining a home. A lot of them resigned their positions because keeping up with everything just became too much.

In all, 2 million women left the workforce. That’s 2 million stalled careers, 2 million broken rungs. And there will keep being more unless something changes.

How Your Organization Can Help

Fixing the broken rungs and increasing diversity and inclusion in the workforce is going to require efforts by all involved, including workers, but here are some ways your organization can contribute:

  • Provide gender bias training. Many people who mean well carry implicit biases they are not aware of. Bias training helps people recognize these biases and change their behaviors, leading to a more inclusive work climate.

  • Achieve a sustainable work model. Balancing the needs of work and life is a challenge. When companies remove factors that create hindrances to entering or remaining in the workforce, work is sustainable. For women, this increases opportunities for advancement.

  • Create in-office and online mentoring programs. Mentorship is a proven way to foster diversity and inclusivity, prepare the next generation of leaders, and increase job satisfaction for mentors who are not in leadership positions already.

At The Mentor Method, we focus on mentorship as one of the ways to repair the broken rungs for women in the workforce. To learn about how we can help your organization, just click here to schedule a demo!


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