It’s not the “glass ceiling” holding women back at work, new analysis finds

The struggle women face landing senior leadership roles in corporate America is commonly blamed on the “glass ceiling” — the metaphorical gender barrier that blocked their ascent to the highest levels of management. Yet new research indicates that the problems for women in the workforce begin far lower down the professional ladder.

Women early in their careers are far more likely to stumble on a “broken rung,” or failing to get a promotion out of their entry-level jobs at the same rate as men, according to a new study from consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and Lean In, the nonprofit started by former Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. 

For every 100 male employees promoted from entry-level jobs to managerial roles, only 87 women received a similar promotion, according to the report. The broken rung is even harder to surmount for women of color, with only 73 receiving that first promotion for every 100 men who are moved up, the study found. 

That failure to climb the ladder isn’t due to lack of ambition, with the survey of 27,000 workers finding that women have the same goals for advancing their careers as men. But bias may play a role, with corporate leaders often promoting young male employees on their potential, while young women are judged more by their track records — a tougher standard when female workers are just starting in their careers. 

“Social science would tell you that gender bias, and bias around what a leader looks like, all of that is much more likely to creep in when employees have shorter track records,” Rachel Thomas, CEO of Lean In, told CBS MoneyWatch. 

Eliminating the glass ceiling may seem easier given that the pipeline is smaller at the top of the corporate hierarchy, she added. But it’s the broken rung where more attention needs to be focused because that will unlock more opportunity for women, leading to a greater number in leadership roles and potentially boosting the share of women in C-suite roles, which now stands at 28%. 

“We don’t face a constraint on ambition”

The pandemic created major headwinds for many women in the workforce, with millions dropping out of the labor market as schools and child-care centers shuttered. While women have returned to the job market in force, many say they prefer hybrid or flexible roles, which have become more common as the health crisis receded.

That may have fueled a notion that women’s ambition is waning. But that’s not the case, McKinsey and Lean In found. Indeed, 96% of women said their career is important to them, and 81% want to to be promoted to the next level this year, matching men’s aspirations at work.

“We don’t face a constraint on ambition — we face a constraint on opportunity,” said Lareina Yee, senior partner at McKinsey & Co.

In some ways, the pandemic has actually unlocked career ambitions for women, with the report finding that 1 in 5 said the flexibility afforded by hybrid workplaces and remote jobs have helped them stay in their job or avoid cutting their hours. And women who work in such roles are just as ambitious as women and men who work on-site, the study found. 

The impact of “microaggressions”

Another myth about women in the workplace is that microaggressions, or comments or actions that subtly demean a person based on their gender, race or other attributes, are a minor issue. But the analysis found that they can have lasting and damaging impacts on women at work. 

For instance, the study found that women are twice as likely as their male colleagues to be interrupted or hear comments about their emotional state, while they are also more likely than a man to have a coworker take credit for their work. 

Wage gap still exists 60 years after Equal Pay Act


Women who deal with microaggressions are likely to “self-shield,” or adjust their actions or how they look in order to protect themselves. But the impact can be detrimental to their engagement at work, with the analysis finding that these women are more than three times as likely to think about quitting.

Leaders at work need to communicate that microaggressions are harmful and aren’t welcome, the report said.

“I’m hopeful that we can change bias in the workplace — and a phrase we have used many times is, ‘You have to interrupt it where it occurs’,” Yee noted.

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