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The “broken rung” is the biggest obstacle women face

To get to gender parity, companies need to focus their efforts at the first step up to manager.


  • Men
  • Women
Sr. Manager/ Director

Over the past five years, the number of women in senior leadership has grown. Still, women continue to be underrepresented at every level.

Key findings from five years of data


The biggest obstacle women face

Conventional wisdom says that women hit a “glass ceiling” as they advance that prevents them from reaching senior leadership positions. In reality, the biggest obstacle that women face is the first step up to manager, or the “broken rung.” This broken rung results in more women getting stuck at the entry level and fewer women becoming managers. As a result, there are significantly fewer women to advance to higher levels. To get to gender parity across the entire pipeline, companies must fix the broken rung.


Key data

  • Women are less likely to be hired and promoted to manager: For every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired.
  • Men hold 62% of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38%. The number of women decreases at every subsequent level.
  • One third of companies set gender representation targets for first-level manager roles, compared to 41% for senior levels of management.
  • We can add 1 million more women to management in corporate America over the next five years if women are hired and promoted to manager at the same rates as men.

Fairness and opportunity

When employees feel they have equal opportunity to advance and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work. We looked at a number of factors that prior research has shown influence employee satisfaction and retention—including leadership accountability and manager support—and together opportunity and fairness stand out by far as the strongest predictors.


Key data

  • Together, opportunity and fairness are the strongest predictors of employee satisfaction. Across demographic groups, employees universally value opportunity and fairness.
  • Only 6 of the 3231 companies have a full range of best practices in place to support inclusive and unbiased hiring and promotions.
  • 1 in 4 women think their gender has played a role in missing out on a raise, promotion or chance to get ahead.
  • Everyone benefits from opportunity and fairness. Diversity efforts are about ensuring employees of all genders, races, and backgrounds have access to the same opportunities.

Women’s experiences are not universal

Women’s experiences are often shaped by other aspects of their identity. Women of color, lesbian and bisexual women, and women with disabilities are having distinct—and by and large worse—experiences than women overall. Most notably, Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement, get less support from managers, and receive less sponsorship than other groups of women.


Key data

  • Black women and women with disabilities face more barriers to advancement and get less support than other groups of women.
  • Women with disabilities face far more everyday discrimination like having their judgment questioned, being interrupted, or having their ideas co-opted.
  • Lesbian women, bisexual women, and women with disabilities are far more likely than other women to hear demeaning remarks about themselves or others like them.
  • Commitment to racial diversity is similar to commitment to gender diversity: 77% of companies, 59% of managers, and 56% of employees say it is a high priority.

Challenging bias in the workplace

Bias impacts women’s day-to-day work experiences and ability to advance. Women are far more likely to experience everyday discrimination in the workplace. And bias can hurt their chances of getting hired or promoted—particularly at the first step up to manager, where all candidates have short track records. 50 Ways to Fight Bias is a program to empower managers and employees to identify and challenge bias. This card-based activity highlights 50 specific examples of gender bias in the workplace and offers research-backed recommendations for what to do.


Key data

  • 33% of women and 11% of men say they have seen or heard biased behavior toward women.
  • 73% of women report experiencing microaggressions—or everyday discrimination—which is rooted in bias.
  • Only about a third of employees who’ve seen bias over the past year spoke up personally to challenge it—and less than a quarter say someone else did.
  • Only 32% of women and 50% of men believe disrespectful behavior toward women is often quickly addressed by their company.

This year, we collected information from 329 organizations employing 13 million people and surveyed more than 68,500 employees to better understand their day-to-day work experiences.

Logos of companies that have shared their pipeline data: adidas, espn, etc

Women in the Workplace is the largest study of the state of women in corporate America.

Read our previous reports to track progress on gender diversity and discover opportunities for improvement.

Go to reports

Women In The Workplace 2019

The “broken rung” is the biggest obstacle women face

Read the 2019 report

To accelerate progress, companies need to treat gender diversity like the business priority it is.

That starts with taking concrete actions to drive diversity and inclusion.

Challenge gender bias in the workplace

50 Ways to Fight Bias helps companies combat bias in hiring and promotions and empowers employees to challenge bias when they see it. The card-based activity highlights 50 specific examples of gender bias in the workplace and offers research-backed recommendations for what to do.

Learn more about 50 Ways

Lead a Circle at your company

Bringing women together in the workplace can be a powerful force for change. Join or create a Circle with your co-workers to share ideas, seek advice, and learn new skills—from negotiating your salary to discovering your strengths.

Lead a circle


  1. A total of 323 companies completed the HR portion of this year’s survey