Susan R. Madsen: Fixing the ‘broken rung’ for women in the workplace

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, left, and Utah Valley University President Astrid Tuminez, right, listen as Westminster President Bethami Dobkin, center, talks during a panel on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018.

The global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company recently released a national report called “Women in the Workplace 2019.” It reviews the status of women at all levels of leadership in the 600-plus companies that participated, including a quarter of a million individual workers surveyed. It shows where progress has been made since their last study in 2015, revealing improvement at senior levels, and emphasizing the need for greater efforts earlier in the pipeline to create lasting progress.

The good news about corporate America is that there are more women at the top. Senior leadership has risen from 17% in 2015 to 22%, and 44% of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, up 15% from five years ago. This progress is because more women are being hired and promoted at director levels. And yet, when we look lower down on the corporate ladder, women continue to encounter what is referred to as the “broken rung.” The single biggest obstacle faced by women trying to get to senior leadership is that first promotion to manager.

Some of the same issues are at play in Utah, and these are highlighted in several Utah Women & Leadership Project 3- and 4-year updated reports. What did we find in terms of gender?

Although we remain below the national average in most areas, we have seen some slight movement. And while I still meet people who don’t “get” why this is a big deal, most are beginning to understand that organizations of all kinds will increasingly thrive when both men and women hold leadership roles.

How do we fix the broken rung? The McKinsey & Company report makes several suggestions. Set goals for women and diversity in first-level management. Many do this at higher levels with great success. Start early and watch it trickle up. Next, require high quality unconscious bias training on all levels and establish clear evaluation criteria in hiring processes. This helps decrease bias and helps those doing the promoting to be more objective. Finally, put more women in line for the step up to manager. Here is where leadership training, sponsorship, and giving higher profile assignments can make sure more women seek and are sought for promotion.

When you see that women are at the helm of the majority of Utah’s largest universities and colleges, it’s obvious that women have the skills necessary to be at the top. But we need to make sure we aren’t so focused on breaking glass ceilings that we forget that there’s a broken rung at the bottom of the very ladder that’s necessary for climbing.

Susan R. Madsen

Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.