'Broken rung' in corporate ladder stops women from getting to the top: Report

PHOTO: Woman in office standing at window.PlayJohn Lamb/Getty Images, FILE
WATCH News headlines today: Nov. 18, 2019

A sweeping new study that looked at 329 companies employing 13 million people found that women in the workplace have come a long way in recent years -- but it's not a "glass ceiling" that is keeping women from the top, but a "broken rung" on the corporate ladder.

The annual Women in the Workplace study released Tuesday from LeanIn.org and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, is the largest analysis of the state of women in corporate America and a deep dive into their experiences in the workforce as the fight for gender parity continues.

While the companies they looked at have made great strides to promote women to executive level positions in recent years, the study found that the biggest obstacle most women face with being promoted is that first step up from entry-level roles to manager -- what they dub the "broken rung."

This first "broken rung" is the biggest systemic barrier to gender parity, according to the report.

For every 100 men promoted and hired to management, only 72 women are, the study found. As a result, men end up holding 62% of manager positions, with women just holding 38%.

The numbers are worse for women of color: For every 100 entry-level male employees promoted to manager, only 58 black women are and only 68 Latina women are promoted.

PHOTO: Getty Images, FILE

"For me, the biggest takeaway is that we’ve long thought that the glass ceiling was the problem, that there is this invisible barrier on top of the pipeline that prevents people from rising to leadership," LeanIn.org’s co-founder and CEO, Rachel Thomas, told ABC News. "It's really at that first step up into management, that broken rung."

This means "there's fewer women to promote at every subsequent level," she added. "And as a result women can never effectively catch up."

"Until we fix that broken rung, some women may make some cracks in it, but we’re not going to have enough women coming up behind them to really break that glass ceiling," Thomas said.

Alexis Krivkovich, a senior partner at McKinsey and the co-founder of the annual report said their findings are especially important because "so much attention has really gone to the glass ceiling, but the largest number of women affected are women at the beginning of their careers."

"One thing that's interesting is how many companies don't realize that it's an issue," Krivkovich added. "You can't solve the problem until you first recognize that it is one."

"If you don't realize that the imbalance is there it's really hard to put the attention you need to fix it," she said.

Another issue women face on a day-to-day basis in the workplace that men often don't are "micro-aggressions," Krivkovich said.

"These are things like having to credential yourself, being mistaken for someone more junior, being asked to take the notes, being challenged or talked over in conversation," Krivkovich said.

"Women face real headwinds in their advancement," Krivkovich said. "While women demonstrate similar levels of ambition, they have very different day-to-day experiences."

The good news is that the gaze from the C-suite is becoming more female. Since 2015, the representation of women in senior leadership has increased from 17% to 21%, the study found. Meanwhile, 44% of companies have three or more women in their executive level management -- up from 29% in 2015.

Still, only one in five "C-suite executives" is a women, according to the report. And only 1 in 25 "C-suite executives" is a woman of color.

What working women can do about this

Thomas and Krivkovich urged women not to lose hope, as the data this year holistically has been more encouraging than before.

At the individual level, Krivkovich said there are two things she always tells women to do as they climb the corporate ladder: Find sponsors in the workplace and stand up for other women.

"The first one is to really seek out sponsors and to think broadly about who sponsors, and who really could be a powerful sponsor for you," Krivkovich said. "They don't need to be the people you have the most in common with, they don't need to be the people you share the most interactions with, they need to be the people who can most help you advance and get ahead."

"The second one is it can be hard to be your own champion, it can be much easier to be a champion for someone else, so if you are in those meeting where you see those micro-aggressions, where you see someone talked over," Krivkovich said. "Call it out, because being someone else's advocate helps brings awareness to everybody."

PHOTO: Woman in office standing at window. John Lamb/Getty Images, FILE
Woman in office standing at window.

Thomas said to keep asking for those promotions.

"In terms of practical thing that women can do its kind of going outside the bounds of the study itself, it's continue to ask, we know that women ask for promotions even if the don't get it in the moment, we know that they are more likely to get it in the future," Thomas said.

"We know that any women, when they ask for specific amount of money, the outcomes are better, so ask for it and be specific," she added.

As for what companies can do? "One of the biggest things for me is that companies need to treat gender diversity and diversity more broadly as a business priority," Thomas said.

This means set goals or targets, share your metrics, hold senior leaders accountable and reward diversity in the workplace.