All about the “broken rung”

by Sep 19, 2023

The Broken Rung


The broken rung creates a leaky pipeline for women which in turn perpetuates the gender gap in leadership positions


I became bored with Boards way back in 2012 and have always been a pipeline person. It’s not as sexy, but it’s vital and in many organisations is overlooked possibly because it needs systemic change to be effective. The focus on getting women to the very top echelons of leadership is of course great, but it shouldn’t be the sole goal. It’s about basics because the maths won’t math, unless you deal with the whole length of the talent pipeline. Organisations need succession plans.

Understanding the Broken Rung

Women represent more than 50% of graduates in most geographies and tend to enter the workplace in equal numbers to men. This situation changes early in women’s careers as they start up the corporate ladder with their first promotion from entry-level to manager or supervisor. Studies and data have consistently shown that women are significantly underrepresented at this level compared to men. This disparity has wide-reaching implications because the first rung is a crucial stepping stone to more senior positions.

McKinsey and LeanIn call this the ‘Broken Rung.”

In their 2023 Report Women in the Workplace, McKinsey and Lean In note  “For the ninth consecutive year, women face their biggest hurdle at the first critical step up to manager. This year, for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, 87 women were promoted. And this gap is trending the wrong way for women of color: this year, 73 women of color were promoted to manager for every 100 men, down from 82 women of color last year. As a result of this “broken rung,” women fall behind and can’t catch up.

It’s not rocket science. Fewer women in managerial roles create pipeline problems and will consequently lead to fewer women in senior and top leadership roles

Why the Broken Rung Matters

1. Leaky Pipeline

The broken rung creates a leaky pipeline for women. When women are not promoted from entry-level to management positions at the same rate as men, there are fewer women in the talent pool for more senior roles. This, in turn, perpetuates the gender gap in leadership positions.

2. Increased attrition

With no or limited promotion prospects women leave organisations or get stuck in what’s known as the Marzipan Layer.

3. Gender Pay Gap

The broken rung contributes to the gender pay gap. Since managerial positions often come with higher salaries, the failure to promote women to these roles early in their careers leads to compounding pay disparity over time.

4. Lack of Role Models

When there are fewer women in managerial positions, ambitious junior female employees have difficulties finding role models and mentors who can guide them in their careers.  Of course, it’s great if some Board members are women, but that gap is usually too wide to be immediately aspirational. This absence of representation can discourage women from pursuing leadership roles.

5. Diversity and Innovation

A diverse workforce brings a variety of perspectives and ideas to the table, fostering innovation and creativity. When women are underrepresented at the managerial level, companies miss out on the benefits of diversity.

Basic tips to Design a Diverse and Inclusive Recruitment Process – 3 Plus International

Addressing the Broken Rung

1. Diversity and inclusion policies

Companies should publicise, implement and enforce their policies that create inclusive workplaces by ensuring equal opportunities for all employees. This should involve the whole range of measures necessary to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, including flexible working.

2. Monitor bias

Companies have to be vigilant about monitoring bias. This includes addressing biases in recruitment, promotion, giving feedback and specifically in performance evaluation processes which plays a pivotal role in assessing and identifying talent. Research says that men are assessed on potential, whereas women are assessed on what they have already achieved.

Post-pandemic, the number of companies implementing best practices to reduce bias in hiring and performance reviews has increased significantly, but there is still a long way to go.

3. Audit the promotion system

Raising awareness about the broken rung is the first step towards fixing it, so it’s important to identify areas of the organisation that have a “broken rung” and monitor the promotion process carefully. Only 65% of companies track promotion rates by gender.

4. Training programmes

Many organisations offer first-class programmes to their hi-po pool, but this is already potentially too late coming at a time when many women are agonising over their ticking biological clocks. They need to be brought into the system earlier, especially for those organisations which put emphasis on international stretch assignments.

5. Mentorship and Sponsorship Programs


Organisations can create mentorship and sponsorship programs specifically designed to support women’s career growth. There is a much-used trope that women are over mentored and under-sponsored which generally applies to large organisations with embedded DE& I systems. Most women work for SMES where women are neither mentored or sponsored. Your Sponsor Tree should include lower levels and even reverse mentoring programmes.

5. Tackle microaggressions and culture of harassment

When women face relentless microaggressions they become disengaged and leave.90% of women experience sexism in the workplace.

When organisations foster a culture of inclusion, to create a more equitable workplace where all employees have an equal opportunity to climb the corporate ladder systemic changes will repair the broken rung.

It’s not just about empowering women; it’s about strengthening the talent pipeline vital for business success.

Editor’s Note: This post was written in September 2023 but updated to include the quote from the latest Mckinsey/ LeanIn Report on Women in the Workplace 2023 published in October. 3Plus Founder Dorothy Dalton, ahead of the curve for over a decade!  


We need to create diverse and inclusive workplaces. Check out our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops NOW.



Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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