The power of collective action
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Overcoming obstacles to entering management
For every 100 men hired and promoted to management, 72 women—and only 68 Latinas and 58 Black women—are promoted and hired.
Much of the conversation around women climbing the ladder at work centers on shattering the intangible “glass ceiling” to reach the top, but what about the building blocks to get there?
A recent LeanIn.Org and Mckinsey & Company report said the first step up to management is the biggest obstacle women face on the path to leadership. The numbers are grim: For every 100 men hired and promoted to management, 72 women—and only 68 Latinas and 58 Black women—are promoted and hired. The “broken rung,” as it’s called, keeps more women at entry-level, but inequality compounds over time, resulting in fewer women advancing overall.
Behind the numbers, microaggressions, unconscious bias, and double standards are just some of the realities for working women of color. “The dominant group is promoted based upon potential. Women of color, specifically Black women, are promoted only after they have proven they're already doing the job,” says Trudy Bourgeois, Founder and CEO of The Center For Workforce Excellence, a global leadership development company focused on cultivating inclusive leaders to create more inclusive cultures. The report also outlines ways microaggressions play out for other women: Along with Black women and women with disabilities, lesbians and bisexuals are more likely to be asked to prove their competence and have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise. Other dynamics, like women getting less candid manager feedback and Black women and Latinas feeling like their ideas aren’t valued or heard, also contribute to an environment where underrepresented groups are less likely to break into management.
To fix the broken rung, the report offers solutions like companies requiring diverse candidate slates for hiring and promotions, putting decision-makers at earlier levels through unconscious bias training (and establishing clear evaluation criteria to prevent bias from infiltrating reviews and hiring) as well as instilling leadership training and sponsorship with more urgency. “We have to disrupt the patterns and approaches we’re using right now,” Bourgeois says, stressing that leaders need to own up inequities, set specific goals around closing representation gaps, and have clear definitions for inclusive leadership.
But what does this look like in practice? Ahead, women share lessons they’ve learned while moving up and experts weigh in on ways companies and leaders can better support women earlier on to rise.
Nearly six years ago Valerie Avila, 28, was an entry-level account executive at human resources tech startup, Justworks. The company was quickly expanding, and Avila, “wanted to have a stake in growing the business, and I made that known fairly early on,” she tells Supermaker. “I had a lot of conversations with my boss, and I told him, ‘I want to work towards this, how can I do that?’”
For Avila, that boldness comes naturally and having regular check-ins with her boss to map out her goals resulted in her taking on training new hires. Within a year, she was promoted to training manager. She’s since moved up and is now senior manager of California expansion. She says hearing other women’s career stories through a speaker series she started has helped her cement the importance of, “making sure to vouch for myself, having those open conversations, being open to feedback, and asking for specifics along the way.”
Research says employees would be more engaged if they had ongoing career conversations with their managers, but only 30 percent feel confident enough to have these talks. The LeanIn.Org and Mckinsey & Co report points to why that might happen: Black women and women with disabilities especially get the least manager support, from managing their career path to navigating organizational politics (bisexual women are the next least-supported group in the latter). And other research suggests vague feedback holds women back: “Often because members of the dominant group are afraid that the woman of color is going to play the race card, they'll just say you're doing a good job,” Bourgeois says. “Doing a good job is not going to get me to manager level. We need to make sure that there are specific development plans and that they have advocacy.”
Winny Shen, Associate Professor of Organization Studies in the Schulich School of Business at York University, says managers also have to beware of cognitive traps like benevolent sexism. “A manager might not give a woman challenging career development opportunities because they’re trying to protect this woman, or not give a woman critical feedback as a misguided way of being chivalrous,” says Shen, who’s studied how benevolent sexism can play out in subtle but harmful ways at work and home. “Those are assumptions, and it’s important to actually have conversations with your reports to ensure they agree or you have an accurate gauge of what they want.”
That’s also where strong Employee Resource Groups rooted in diversity, equality, and inclusion that bring together team members are vital, says Bourgeois, who’s consulted with companies like Facebook, Cisco, and PepsiCo. “We need to get that woman anchored into those groups so that she can start to see other role models,” she adds, “and she can overcome isolation and gain more confidence.”
Over a decade-long career in advertising, Stephanie Jones has pushed through challenges by holding onto the belief that she belongs. “I had that built into me,” says Jones, 35. “My parents are immigrants and education was very important. I went to an HBCU, my sister and I both have master’s degrees, and it wasn't abnormal for me to see people of color thriving in successful careers. I'm only starting to realize how profoundly impactful that was.”
At her last agency job in Chicago, Jones says she didn’t see her jump to management coming. She’d been working on a challenging account for months and one day her bosses promoted her to a supervisor. In hindsight, it was well-deserved: She’d put in late nights and weekends, carrying the weight of the work. Her promotion to a director there a few years later tested her personal resolve. And, while her boss was in her court, it took months of repeated conversations with higher-ups before she got promoted. “People have the best of intentions and they might want to do right by you, but it's your career, and closed mouths don’t get fed,” Jones says, who’s now an account director at The Martin Agency in Richmond. “I was nervous about being annoying, but I had to get over that feeling. I had to get explicit about: this is what I'm seeing people in other director-level positions doing, this is what I'm doing. What is it that you think I'm missing to get to that level?”
It’s often the case that employees put themselves up for promotions, but Shen points to research that looks at the effectiveness of organizations considering everyone up for promotion by default (and allowing employees to opt-out) rather than putting the onus on the individual. A system like this could even the promotion field, Shen says, especially when, “women may feel like they need more experience, or due to gender stereotypes that they have to be approached and hold themselves back until they feel really confident and ready,” she says, adding this can have considerable career implications.
Jones imparts a self-confidence piece when going for a bigger role: “Start with understanding what you deserve and setting out to achieve that,” she says. “Know that you already belong, and once you know that you're doing that type of work or you're capable, exist in that confidence.” Bourgeois agrees that knowing your value is important in making a leap into management.
On the company side, the LeanIn.org and Mckinsey & Co report suggests organizations should focus on mitigating bias at earlier career levels, where evaluators may be more apt to make gendered assumptions about entry-level employee potential. Unconscious bias training for managers can be effective, but Bourgeois says her programs are focused on disrupting siloed approaches of “putting women of color in one room saying we're going to fix you and then putting managers who are mainly from the dominant group in a room going, you need to understand your unconscious bias. That’s not going to work.”
A more effective approach? Intentionally bringing managers and underrepresented groups together for a shared learning experience, says Bourgeois. “We go into it saying, everybody has something to learn,” she adds. “This is not about blame. This is about us figuring out a new way to optimize talent.”
A Center for Work-Life Policy report said men are 46 percent more likely than women to have a sponsor. But the benefits women can reap from sponsorship are great: They’re more likely to ask their manager for a stretch assignment and negotiate a raise. “Mentors help coach you and cheer you on, but sponsors are recommending you for open roles and projects, and then making sure you know about opportunities. They truly are sponsoring you to that next level,” says Kim Seals, 53, an active investor in early-stage companies and a general partner at the JumpFund, who was most recently a senior partner at Mercer and spent over 25 years in HR consulting.
As the only woman on various leadership teams, Seals says sponsorship has been instrumental in her career and in helping other women move up. She suggests building your reputation within your company by asking leaders to meet, and “making sure that people in the organization know who you are, and know what you can do. I rarely see leaders who aren't willing to take meetings with people who want to get to know them as they're looking to network,” she says. “Just be specific in your ask and how they can help.”
Bourgeois adds that companies who are making the most progress have formalized sponsorship programs with a shift toward a mutual outcome. “That sponsor takes ownership of the success of that individual,” she says. “We need visible investors and that needs to be a part of leadership expectations.”
Much progress is needed on hiring fronts and in supporting companies' existing talent to address the broken rung, but the imperative is strong. According to LeanIn.Org and Mckinsey & Co, over the next five years, one million more women will enter management in corporate America if women are promoted and hired to first-level management at equal rates to men.
Bourgeois believes a critical piece in more women being promoted to early management is teaching existing managers how to coach, sponsor, mentor, and develop across differences—with empathy. “Until you can become empathetic as a leader, you're always going to discount what you hear,” she says. Once companies have a line of sight into the experiences of different women (meaning shifting the standard focus on white women to include the nuanced and complicated experiences of women of color, LGBTQ+ employees, and women with disabilities) Bourgeois says, “then they need to build new competencies and capabilities for their managers,” to uplift that talent.
“We have to create a shared learning opportunity,” she adds, “so that people get to a place where they can build their confidence, they can build their competence, and they can build their courage.”