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Glass Ceiling or Broken Rung?

Without in any way attempting to simplify what is obviously an extremely complex discussion that has been ongoing for decades, there are often two somewhat competing explanations for the lack of women in leadership positions across an array of fields and industries.

Two Theories for Why Women Lag in Leadership Roles

On the one hand, it is often argued that women face a glass ceiling in these fields. In other words, for a variety of social and cultural norms and stereotypes, among other factors, women are only allowed to rise so high in many organizations before they hit the unofficial (therefore invisible) ceiling and their careers stall out. This is the “glass ceiling” argument.

On the other hand, it is countered that the issue is not that anyone either intentionally or subconsciously is prohibiting women from reaching these pinnacle positions, but rather that women don’t enter certain fields in the same proportion as men do (i.e., politics, STEM fields, sports, etc.) and therefore there simply aren’t enough women in the pipeline to reach top positions. This is the “pipeline” argument.

Of course, there are many steps along the career ladder from initial entry to head of an organization. Recent research suggests that a new theory might better explain the lack of women in top roles than either the glass ceiling or the pipeline arguments.

This new theory can be called the “broken rung” theory.

The Broken Rung Theory

In the 2019 Women in the Workplace Report, McKinsey and Lean In found that women move up the career ladder in smaller numbers than men at every stage but lose the most ground early. The study of 329 companies found that while many companies see the value in having more women in senior leadership positions, the biggest obstacle women face is at their first step to manager. Rather than a “glass ceiling,” women are, in fact, facing broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder leading to senior leadership roles.

A recent WSJ article explained that, although men and women enter the workforce in fairly equal numbers, men begin to outnumber women almost 2 to 1 at the first step up into management roles. Those management roles are key steps in the ladder to senior leadership positions. This broken rung early in the ladder will continue to perpetuate a shortage of women in leadership positions.

Lack of Representation Complex

While many will say that this trend is caused by women starting families, not asking for promotions or leaving the workforce, the research shows that is simply not true. The McKinsey and Lean In study found that men and women’s attrition rates are near equal at every career stage. The study also revealed that 71% of women would like to be promoted (compared to 74% of men). In fact, the percentage of women who asked for promotions and raises was actually higher than their male counterparts.

Again, the story of women’s lack of representation in top positions is complex, and there are many factors to blame at every step of ladder. But the idea of looking at the “broken rung” in addition to the pipeline or the ceiling can help identify additional areas for improvement in evening the playing field and advancing the representation of women in leadership positions across all fields.

Interested in learning more? We’ve taken a deep dive into this and other issues stalling the ability for organizations to achieve the full potential that building an inclusive workplace can yield. Download Overcoming the “Stuck State.”

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