The “glass ceiling,” a commonly discussed phenomenon for women in the workforce, is not reflective of most women’s experience in the technology workforce. The “glass ceiling” refers to an invisible, impenetrable barrier women face after reaching a certain level in their career while their male colleagues continue ascending around them. While there is a large national conversation around this glass ceiling and helping women rise to the highest levels of corporate leadership, the reality is that many women who start their careers in tech don’t ever end up in even early management positions. In tech, we’re not battling the “glass ceiling” so much as we are the “broken rung,” as women are struggling to enter the first level of management at the same rate men do.
In corporate America, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 72 women are promoted. For Black and Latina women, these numbers are even smaller (according to McKinsey’s 2020 Report, for every 100 men promoted only 58 Black women and 68 Latina women receive promotions). With men outnumbering women nearly 2 to 1 in early managerial positions, it’s no surprise that so many women leave companies, industries, and even the workforce all together after getting stuck at entry-level jobs.
As an executive working in technology for over 20 years, I’ve seen the “broken rung” force many talented women out of the tech industry. The bad news is that even in 2021, this is a huge barrier to women’s success. The good news is that there are plenty of measurable changes that can be made to address the issue. Here are four measurable actions that can help.
1. Make sure women get that first promotion. This is crucial. Once the employee pool begins to narrow in demographics, this will only be amplified at each subsequent level of leadership. It’s no surprise then that women occupy such a small percentage of C-level positions, since they are facing such difficulties in obtaining promotion opportunities after their first jobs. A study conducted by LinkedIn found that the No. 1 reason millennial women left the workforce was because of a “lack of advancement opportunities.” Gen X and Baby Boomer women list “dissatisfaction with senior leadership” as their top reason for leaving the workforce. Poor promotion opportunities in early careers will drive a lack of diversity at the highest and most important levels.
2. Develop women in your workforce. For women not to get stuck at entry-level positions, companies need to make a conscious effort to ensure that women are given opportunities to grow. This can include lateral opportunities to expand skill sets, chances to work on difficult projects, and direct access to leadership and mentorship. Keep in mind that women tend to have more understated linguistic data in their resumes and appraisals. This does not make them any less successful or capable, simply less outspoken. If you have more qualified entry-level men than women, consider whether men are gaining more opportunities to work on critical assignments, more opportunities to expand their skill sets, or more support from senior leadership.
3. Ensure that the first level of management has the same demographic breakdown as your entry level workforce. Companies need to commit to making sure that men aren’t receiving promotions and opportunities at a higher rate than women, especially very early in their careers.
4. Adapt family-friendly policies. Flexible work, remote work, childcare, maternity, and
paternity leave are crucial when it comes to retaining women mid-career. Women leave the tech field at a 45% higher rate than men. While most report a lack of advancement opportunities as the main reason, nearly a third of women cite “family” as their top reason for leaving. Adapting family-friendly policies like paid maternity and paternity leave, childcare options, and flexible working options has been proven to increase retention for all employees. Many companies have seen this play out. In 2012, Google found that postpartum women were leaving the company at twice the rate of other employees. After lengthening their maternity leave and changing it from partial pay to full pay, attrition decreased by 50%.
Thoughtful, intentional programs and commitments at the earliest levels of employment could dramatically change the industry make up as a whole in just a few years. Remember that early level managers become the candidate pool for C-suite executives. Companies talk a big game about gender diversity and hiring, but it’s time they show that commitment by supporting the women they have. Not simply by hiring them, but by promoting them, trusting them with big projects, and championing them as they move through the workforce.
The “broken rung” has likely been perpetuated in the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of women to downshift their careers or leave the workforce altogether due to increasing caretaking demands. Women who face the “broken rung” will rarely meet their full potential. They will move to different industries, struggle to make up for lost time, and usually, drop out of the workforce entirely or resign themselves to working far below their potential.
As a society, we are missing out on nearly half of the potential of our workers by allowing this to continue. As technology leaders, it’s our responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen -- the risk of losing out on talented women in tech is too high.