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The broken first rung: The critical barrier hindering women in leadership

In the pursuit of gender equality in the workplace, the metaphorical “glass ceiling” has long been identified as a significant obstacle for women in leadership, preventing them from climbing the corporate ladder. However, recent research suggests that the true impediment lies at the very beginning of this ascent — the broken first rung of the management ladder. This article delves into the compelling evidence behind why women often face barriers at the entry point to managerial positions, putting them at a considerable disadvantage from the outset of their careers.

The broken first rung: A statistical reality

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the glass ceiling isn’t a singular entity blocking women’s progress. Instead, it manifests as a tangible hurdle right at the start of their managerial journey. According to research, for every 100 men promoted to entry-level management roles, only 87 women are promoted. This statistical discrepancy paints a clear picture of a broken first rung that hinders women’s advancement and perpetuates a gender imbalance within organisations.

Internal promotions and the bias challenge

The broken first rung is not confined to external hires; internal promotion bias exacerbates the issue. In the UK, research indicates that men are 21% more likely than women to be internally promoted to leadership positions. This internal bias further amplifies the disparity, creating a systemic disadvantage for women seeking advancement within their existing organisations.

Expert insights

Ann Cairns, Chair of Crown Agents Bank, highlights the severity of the problem by pointing out that the challenge begins with the first rung of the management ladder. Women are often overlooked for managerial roles, with men frequently given opportunities based on potential rather than experience. This trend persists throughout the leadership pipeline, with fewer women making it to shortlists as one ascends the corporate hierarchy.

“The problem starts at the very first rung of the management ladder – women simply don’t get made managers as frequently as men. In many companies and industries, women are hired or promoted based on their experience while men are often given the chance to step up based on their skills and potential. This continues throughout the leadership pipeline, with fewer women appearing on shortlists the higher you move up the pipeline.”

Ann Cairns, Chair of Crown Agents Bank

The domino effect

The broken first rung sets off a domino effect that reverberates through all subsequent career levels. With fewer women at each stage, the percentage of women in leadership positions diminishes, resulting in a scarcity of female role models and mentors. This perpetuates a cycle of inequality, making it increasingly challenging for women to break through the barriers imposed by the broken first rung.

Beyond qualifications: A cultural challenge

Crucially, this challenge is not a reflection of women’s qualifications or educational achievements. Studies show that women are surpassing men in obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The root cause lies in the corporate culture, which was historically designed for and has favored men. Overcoming this obstacle requires a fundamental shift in organisational practices to ensure women are not only hired but are also provided with equal opportunities to ascend the leadership ladder based on their skills and potential.

The broken first rung is a tangible and formidable barrier that significantly hinders women’s workplace progression. Addressing this challenge demands a comprehensive reevaluation of organisational practices to create a fair and inclusive environment where women are not only welcomed but are also afforded the opportunities they need to advance and thrive in leadership roles. As businesses strive for gender equality, acknowledging and rectifying the broken first rung is a crucial step toward building more diverse and equitable workplaces.

So what’s the answer?

As a company with a 70% female SLT, we’ve seen these work brilliantly… and not. The truth is, when deployed in isolation, these programmes can be just another gender tax – communicating to women that it is their responsibility to correct the company’s gender imbalance in leadership. Too many of these programmes send the message that women are at a deficit when it comes to their natural leadership skills, and need specific training to correct this deficit – which is simply not true.

Find out how we take a different approach.





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