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Developing Women Leaders for the Top Starts at the Bottom

Here’s a surprising factoid: workers in Botswana or Belarus are more likely to have a female manager than are workers in the U.S. or even in the U.K. 

The business case has already been made for women in management. We know that women are uniquely suited to leadership. Moreover, 40 years of research confirms that women managers outperform their male counterparts. Firms with more women in senior positions attain better business outcomes; are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide better customer experiences.

So that begs the question-- why is there still a gender gap at the top?

The McKinsey/Lean In Women in the Workplace 2020 report shines some light on this point. In the process, it makes a startling revelation. Women in the U.S., in fact, are underrepresented at every level of management, not just the top tiers.

The path to developing women leaders is clearer than many might expect, but it faces COVID-cultivated threats. COVID forever transformed the way we work. Remote working schemes were (are) disproportionately hard on women: 1 in 4 contemplate leaving their jobs or downshifting their careers. 

We at wanted to know more and identify how we could help. The effects coming out of the pandemic now represent an opportunity for women and organizations.  Read on to find out how organizations can close the gender gap.

Mind the gap: Women as Managers in the U.S. Workplace

Lack of women as managers in U.S. organizations is not a new phenomenon. Whether the industry is historically “female friendly” (like retail and health care) or not (like finance and banking), men dominate the management ranks. But, there have been significant gains in women leader representation since 2015. Female appointments to C-level roles also continue to make headlines, even within  traditionally male-dominated sectors.

What the McKinsey/Lean In report so clearly reveals is the “broken rung” at the first step up to manager. The lack of women promoted to the first level of management is the biggest factor in perpetuating the gender gap in the workplace. 

Starting from Behind and Trying to Catch up

Women start their careers from behind. They’re getting stuck at the entry level where only 38% of manager level positions are women-held. In comparison, 62% of similar managerial positions are held by men. Once men pull ahead at these junior- and mid- management levels, it’s then a straight shot to the top where men continuously outnumber women.


“Promotion appeal” is another key factor that continues to influence women’s managerial promotability. That is, women are less likely to be in positions which would accelerate success by spotlighting performance. These are high potential positions like handling high-profile clients or helping build a line of business. It’s more common for women to take on-- or are steered into-- support roles, like project management. 

It’s a Labyrinth not a Ladder: the Truth About how Women Become Leaders 

Women hit obstacles on the way to the first promotion. They don’t climb the proverbial ladder, they navigate a labyrinth to success. A woman can be using the perfect leadership style, but she’s not effective unless others are willing to follow her. To this end, what’s at work here in influencing hiring and promotion decisions? 

There are multiple reasons women are stymied when it comes to managerial success. It has to do with the way we think about: women, men, and leadership. Gender-influenced perceptions--  like being “bossy” versus being “assertive”-- make women’s paths to power difficult.  Women are undermined by walls all around

This, despite the volume of evidence in support of female leaders. Traditional feminine traits and values actually make women stronger leaders, particularly during transformational times. Transformational leaders see the bigger picture, are adaptive, seek out collaboration, and allow subordinates to figure out how to do things themselves.

They overcome and carry on, but women face psychological splinters on their way to the top. Companies need to marshall the changes needed to fix the “broken rung.” 

When organizations focus on developing policies, skills, and workplace culture to support their aspiring women at the lower-levels, they create a ready pool of qualified and promotable women.

Repairing the Broken Rung Needs a Bilateral Approach

Organizations stand to gain 1 million more women in management if organizations are willing to focus their efforts at the bottom.

1. Companies Supporting Women

To close the gender gap, women need support from the organizations they serve. If organizations hired and promoted first-level women managers at the same rates as they do men, organizations would add 1 million more women to management. The gender gap would be closed within a generation instead of decades. Now, COVID-cultivated pressures on women threaten to erase the gains made since 2015.  

Companies can retain COVID-stretched female employees. They can also create more opportunities for them to succeed in the long term. By continuing with and building on what made remote work successful for many, organizations can make substantial improvements in closing the gender gap:

  • Create a flexible and empathetic workplace culture.
  • Train for unconscious biases.
  • Encourage “flip the script” thinking and communication.
  • Offer skill development, guided goal setting, and internal sponsorships to women at every level, and particularly the entry level. 

2. Women Supporting Themselves

There’s a quote attributed to iconic “9 to 5” working woman, Dolly Parton, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” The truth underlying this Dollyism is that women need to take control if they want to rise in the ranks. Doing good work does not go far enough to get women noticed for management positions.

To get ahead, women need to assess their skills and train for perceived deficiencies. If you’re  interested in management, you need to ask yourself, “How am I showing my potential as a manager?”  As a woman, especially at or below the lower rung, you need to:

  • Take control of your skills to overcome any real or perceived weakness. These can be gender-based factors like speaking-up, being more direct, asking for what you want, not being afraid to say no, projecting self-confidence, and being proactive. 

  • Create a personal brand to enhance your internal mobility. Building and cultivating an internal network of female colleagues is vital for expanding influence within an organization. If you want to get noticed, you will need sponsors advocating for you in the room during promotion discussions. 

Women's place within corporate America is on the verge of a crisis. Hard-won gains made in closing the workplace gender gap are threatening to be lost. Many women are leaving the workplace because they just don’t see the opportunity to grow within their organizations. 

Companies must act now to champion women from the early stages. If they can do that, they can stem the flow of attrition while creating better foundations for the future.

Being a woman is an asset in any organization.

Do you want to learn how you can stand out as a capable manager? can help connect you to the right training provider

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About the author

Rama Eriksson is a Content Editor at Her writing is complemented by 15+ years as a marketing professional. She brings her experience and curiosity to connect professionals to the right training to help further their goals.  Originally from the New York area, Rama has lived in Stockholm, Sweden since 2010.

rama eriksson

Last updated: 19 Apr 2021

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