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Forget The Glass Ceiling, 'The Broken Rung' Is Why Women Are Denied Promotions

Black woman raising her hand in a meeting

For every 100 men promoted, only 76 Latinas and 54 Black women would get that same opportunity, a study found.

Shannon Fagan via Getty Images

Getting your first promotion into management is a huge achievement in your career. But a new study from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and nonprofit Lean In shows it’s an opportunity that is not equally afforded to everyone.

According to the study, which used pipeline data from 276 companies in the private, public and social sectors, women ― and women of color, in particular ― are the least likely demographic to get promoted from entry-level to first-time manager.

For every 100 men promoted from entry-level contributor to manager in the survey, only 87 women got promoted. And this gap gets wider for women of color: This year, while 91 white women were promoted to manager for every 100 men, only 89 Asian women, 76 Latinas and 54 Black women would get that same opportunity.

“As a result of this broken rung, women fall behind and can’t catch up,” the study states.

It’s not because those women were not asking for it ― the study found that the women were asking for promotions at the same rate as their male peers. And it’s not because these women did not stick around long enough to be considered for the job ― the study found that they were no more likely to leave their company than their male peers.

The main culprit to this “broken rung” in the career ladder? It’s what known as a “performance bias.”

Why women deal with the “broken rung” phenomenon.

Under a performance bias, men get promoted more because of their future potential, while women get judged on their past accomplishments and have their leadership potential doubted.

“Because women early in their careers have shorter track records and similar work experiences relative to their men peers, performance bias can especially disadvantage them at the first promotion to manager,” according to the study.

This research aligns with the “prove-it-again bias” studies have found women face throughout their career: where they do more work in order to be seen as equally competent to their male peers.

As for why it’s hardest for women of color to make that first leap into management? Workplace consultant Minda Harts, author of “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table,” said it’s because systemic biases and stereotypes cause women of color to be less trusted for the job.

“This lack of trust can manifest in several ways, such as doubts about competence, commitment or ‘fit’ within a leadership role,” Harts told HuffPost. “When senior leadership is predominantly male and white, an unconscious bias might lead them to trust individuals who mirror their own experiences or backgrounds ... As a result, women of color may be disproportionately overlooked for promotions.”

The McKinsey study found that women of color surveyed this year were even less likely to become first-time managers in 2023 than they were in 2022.

Feminist career coach Cynthia Pong told HuffPost it’s because in tough financial times, companies often operate under a scarcity mindset and might see women of color as a bigger “risk” to promote when they are underrepresented in leadership.

“We just had to go through layoffs, and we only have three [manager roles]. You can easily see how in times like that, it would just end up replicating these systems where we only trust and only give the benefit of the doubt to certain folks,” Pong said. “And it’s not going to be women of color.”

That sends a dispiriting message to people who watch their peers advance while they get told they are still not ready.

“It’s even more frustrating and infuriating ... when you see that there is a pathway for others, but not for you. Because the injustice of it makes your blood boil,” Pong said.

This should not be on women and women of color to fix. Employers should proactively take steps to make a clear promotion path for all. 

There is a lot of talk about the “glass ceiling” and the barrier women face that prevents them from becoming executives at the top. But this study illustrates that there is a more fundamental problem happening to women early in their career: the systemic bias that prevents women from being seen as a leader who can manage other people.

“Our success must be something other than a solo sport,” Harts said. “We can’t promote and advance ourselves.”

For companies to be part of the solution, employers should be more transparent about how managerial promotions happen.

“Trust is enhanced when employees understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from their leaders,” Harts said. “This transparency can help mitigate unconscious biases or misconceptions about capabilities or trustworthiness.”

To break down stereotypes and build trust between employees of color and leadership, Harts also recommended companies to implement programs where women of color are paired with sponsors in senior roles.

What you can do about this as an employee.

If you keep being told vague “no’s” after every promotion request, start asking more questions about what your peers are doing that you are not.

“They’re not going to admit to having a systemic problem. They’re going to say, ‘We just don’t have it in the budget,’” said Elaine Lou Cartas, a business and career coach for women of color.

“I’ve seen people that got promoted to this where they are also doing the same amount as I was, but I was doing A, B and C. Help me understand,” is the kind of assertive framing you can use to ask more questions, Cartas said.

And if you find the goalpost of promotion metrics keeps moving after your conversation with your manager, that might be the time to start job hunting.

“Once you already have that conversation, and nothing’s being done, or at least there’s no steps or actions for it to be done in the future, that’s when [you] could start looking,” Cartas said.

Ultimately, one missed promotion may not seem like a huge setback, but it adds up over time with lost wages and earning potential, Pong said.

“And then that also ripples out generationally to all the families and family units that each woman of color is supporting, and then those to come,” she said. “So it seems like it might be like no big deal to have this person promoted one or two years later. But ... these things really snowball.”This post originally appeared on HuffPost.