Women In The Workplace - What You Need To Know in 2020

2 December 2020
8 min read
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Research shows, time and time again, that a diverse workplace makes for a financially successful company

And although companies are desperately trying to diversify their workforce, the corporate ladder remains an uphill battle for women in 2020. 

The infamous glass ceiling is slowly breaking down for women in high-level positions. However, new challenges are surfacing for women in entry-level and mid-level management positions.

In this article, we’ll discuss the difficulties women face both in the hiring process and the workplace, and what companies can do to improve their gender-inclusion efforts.

Read more to learn about:
  • Women And The Glass Ceiling in 2020
  • What Is The Broken Rung - The Biggest Obstacle For Women’s Careers
  • Why The Broken Rung Exists
  • 5 Ways Companies Can Fix The Broken Rung
  • 4 Things Women Can Do To Progress In The Workplace

Women And The Glass Ceiling in 2020

First, the good news. 

A new McKinsey report shows that women and men show the same rates for:

  • Not dropping out of the labor market
  • Asking for promotions
  • Negotiating salaries

Therefore, men and women have an even playing field when it comes to their career progression. 

And thanks to the attention to the glass ceiling barrier, the invisible cultural barrier that prevents women from taking on senior levels, more women every year are becoming C-suite level leaders. 

In 2019, women accounted for 27.9% of the C-suite. By comparison, the level of representation was at 18.6% just 10 years ago.

women in c level statistic

However, contrary to popular belief, the glass ceiling has never been the biggest challenge for women in the workplace. The faults lie much earlier in their career progression.

What Is The Broken Rung - The Biggest Obstacle For Women’s Careers 

As we already mentioned, most organizations have focused their efforts on promoting women at the very top of the corporate ladder. 

Although that’s a positive, most women face difficulties much earlier in their careers. 

By being promoted less often than men earlier on the company ladder, women have a harder time catching up with upper management roles. After all, you can’t be a managing partner if you’re never promoted to a department manager.

women climbing corporate ladder

This is the broken rung, and it goes largely unacknowledged by leaders. And surprisingly enough, if there are women in the company’s senior leadership, the broken rung is much more prominent.

Further, inequality doesn’t affect everyone the same. Black women and women with disabilities face the most barriers in the workplace. 46% of women with disabilities and 44% of black women say they don’t have equal opportunities for growth and development.

The broken rung holds even in the Scandinavian models of gender equality, which the rest of the world tries to look up to. The Norwegian 40% female board representation quota, for example, has not had any impact on women working in mid-level positions.

Thus, thanks to quotas some companies are introducing, we have more women in senior leadership than ever. But as the data shows, that’s still not good enough. If we want to establish true equal opportunities, companies should direct their efforts towards addressing women’s progression to upper management from the very start of their careers.

Thus, thanks to quotas some companies are introducing, we have more women in senior leadership than ever. But as the data shows, that’s still not good enough. If we want to establish true equal opportunities, companies should direct their efforts towards addressing women’s progression to upper management from the very start of their careers.

Why The Broken Rung Exists

Career experts say that women are doing their part. They are just as qualified and eager to learn and progress as their male colleagues.

But there are two main reasons why women aren’t progressing in their careers as fast as men.

  1. Office politics. Most employees admit that office politics are more important than qualifications when it comes to choosing managers. Although HR managers disagree, employees have the first-hand experience of someone being well-liked by colleagues and upper management getting the management job as opposed to someone who deserved it. Why is this an issue for women? It’s been well-researched that women dislike taking part in office politics because it’s “sleazy.”
  2. Internal biases. We tend to overestimate how well men are doing and underestimate women’s performance. Often, men are hired and promoted based on their potential, whereas women are judged based on their past accomplishments. This cognitive bias in how we promote the two genders can lead to great underestimation of leadership potential in women.

And women agree that there are external forces at play. 25% of women think that they didn’t get a promotion or raise because of their gender. And 54% of them report workplace harassment.

women in workplace statistic

Thankfully, more and more companies are committing to increasing gender diversity. 56% of companies say that hiring and promoting more women is of high priority

Which brings us to our next section.

5 Ways Companies Can Fix The Broken Rung

If companies hire and promote women at the same rate as men, there will be one million more women in management in the next five years. 

Here are 5 ways that company managers can help reach that goal.

#1 - Set quantifiable goals 

Only about 30% of companies set targets for the promotion of women to first-level management. In contrast, 41% of companies have quotas for the representation of women in the C-suite levels.

Thus, as part of their strategic intent, companies should put clear quantifiable goals for women’s career progression in every step of the way.

#2 - Apply senior-level policies to junior levels

Companies already have policies to address the glass ceiling. The next course of action is to apply the same practices earlier in the career pipeline. 

Out of 323 surveyed companies in the McKinsey report, only 6 companies had policies in place at a junior level.

These promotion policies include:

  • Having a group of similarly qualified candidates that’s diverse
  • Determining specific evaluation criteria 
  • Discussing only employee qualifications when making a decision
  • Involving evaluators and HR managers that have undergone unconscious bias training, or first-hand providing training for them

#3 - Preparing women early on

If managers see that a woman shows leadership abilities in lower-level positions, they should give them more responsibilities.

They can help women lead their teams or projects and give actionable advice on how to prepare for a management position later on.

#4 - Foster work culture

Quotas are not enough. Gender diversity benefits a company’s performance only when it’s accompanied by a work culture that emphasizes its importance

Management should ensure:

  • Equal opportunity and fairness that fosters diversity
  • Work-life flexibility
  • A safe and respectful workplace

Equal opportunity and fairness

Removing the barriers to equal opportunity doesn’t just help women. 

When companies open the door to different genders, nationalities, religions, races, and backgrounds, they get new and better ideas, and their performance goes up. A diverse, fair workplace gives everyone the same opportunities and does wonder for employee satisfaction.

Managers should start advocating for more career opportunities for their talented subordinates. They should help women and other marginalized groups navigate office politics and get sponsorships, as well as discuss their career progression.

Work-life flexibility

The COVID-19 lockdown made working from home a welcome reality for some. There’s less stress, less commuting, and employees get more time to tend to personal matters. 

Companies should see this as a lesson to adapt their policies to accommodate working from home if the employee needs it. This is especially important for women, who sometimes need to go above and beyond in their home life, making it harder to focus on their career progression.

Companies should also allow women to take more leaves for personal reasons without consequences. Although leaves are not prohibited, most women think that it will hurt their career progression. 

This is especially important when it comes to childbirth leaves. The leave for new fathers has been increasing (from 4 weeks to 7 weeks in the past 5 years). Meanwhile, maternal leaves have remained at 10 weeks for most companies.

These measures ensure women have more flexibility in the workplace. You don’t want your female employees to feel like they have to choose between their career and their personal lives.

Safe and respectful workplace

All research discussed in this article points to a long road ahead for a respectful treatment of women in the workplace. Many of them feel discriminated against or harassed because of their gender.

Companies should empower women to speak up about their negative experiences in the workplace, including harassment, unfair treatment, or microaggressions.

Managers and senior leaders need to start being aware of their biases and take steps towards modeling respectful behaviors for their employees.

Policies against sexual harassment in the workplace should be respected, and management must communicate verbally and through action that improper behavior will not be tolerated or overlooked. 

All employees and managers who fail to contribute to a safe and respectful workplace must be held accountable for their biases, words, or actions. Women are happier when employers focus on accountability and recognition, rather than empty policies in the employee handbook.

#5 - Encourage Women to Apply for More Roles

78% of hiring professionals say that diversity is a high priority for them. However, there are some concerning statistics they should be aware of and be able to address.

Women apply for 20% fewer jobs than men and they’re 16% less likely to apply for a job after viewing the job posting.

women in the workplace job application

That’s because women don’t apply for jobs unless they feel they are 100% qualified for them. By comparison, the qualification bar is 60% for men. 

Women say they don’t want to waste their time and energy by applying for jobs they are not a perfect match for. This makes women too afraid of failure and rejection in the application process.

Once they are in the pipeline, though, this belief works in their favor. When they apply, women are more likely to get hired than men. 

So how can hiring managers ensure more women apply for their job postings?

Here are five encouraging recruitment methods to consider:

  • Improve the company’s benefits package and state it in the job application, along with a salary range.
  • Diversify the decision-making panel to include more women.
  • Reach out to female-led organizations that foster equal opportunities for women and advertise there. Make sure that the job posting reaches as many women as possible.
  • Advertise job postings in women’s colleges and universities, and expand recruitment efforts to include candidates with a diverse background.
  • Make sure the job posting doesn’t include any gender-coded language that can discourage women from applying.

4 Things Women Can Do To Progress In The Workplace

Women and men are on the same learning curve. However, as we’ve seen so far, women are sometimes discouraged from office politics and biases from taking on managerial positions. 

Here is some advice for on how to tackle the broken rung for early-career women:

  • Form a professional support network. Identify a small trusted group of senior women that can help challenge you and advise you throughout your career. These could be direct managers, senior professionals, teachers, and professors. Your professional support network is there to inspire you and advise you, and it’s up to you to make those connections and follow through with their advice.
  • Speak up. Your needs and experiences deserve to be heard. So ask your managers for what you need. Speak up on a promotion, a raise, an injustice, or extra resources. Be bold and confident.
  • Take risks. Men are usually very confident, whereas women often second-guess their skills and abilities. Remember that you were hired or promoted based on merit. Don’t be afraid to be authentic in your abilities and beliefs and take the risks required to progress your career and your ambitions.
  • Make being happy a priority. If you’re not happy, your performance suffers. Put your joy and happiness at the forefront of everything you do. Don’t be afraid to make others uncomfortable in the process of not settling for less. Do whatever feels right to you, and do it from a place of love.


In 2020, women have more opportunities and resources to succeed than ever. However, our benchmark of comparison is the past, which has not been very kind to women’s ambitions.

We are making progress in shattering the invisible glass ceiling that prevents women from being in charge. But companies have yet to put in place best practices that encourage the fixing of the broken rung.

Research has dedicated time and effort to recommend actionable steps on how to help more women climb up, and we discussed most of them in this article. 

It is now up to companies to take those best practices and put them into action in order to succeed.

Here’s to hoping that 2022 will find more companies helping women develop, grow, and lead! 

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