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Updated: February 5, 2024 Opinion

Viewpoint: The broken rung in the corporate ladder

For the last several years for WBJ’s Women in Leadership edition, I’ve written about the challenges women of color face in attaining and retaining leadership positions within corporate America. Six years (and a total career change) have passed since I first wrote about the concrete ceiling for WBJ, so I figured it was time to revisit this barrier and see if any progress has been made.

Melanie Bonsu

I started with the same route I did in 2018 – checking the Fortune 500 list. I was pleasantly surprised to find 2023 was a record year for women CEOs; 52 (10.4%) companies reported having women leading their organizations, which is a 19% increase from last year. Since I now work for a global company, I checked the Global 500 list and found that 5.8% (29) are led by women, a 20% increase from last year. This shows a gain, but one that doesn’t transfer down to Black women, as only two Black women made the list, Thasunda Brown Duckett of New York insurer TIAA and Toni Townes-Whitley of Virginia engineering firm SAIC.

Two women? Is this still the effects of the concrete ceiling? After doing some research, I discovered the broken rung in the corporate ladder! According to research from McKinsey and LeanIn.Org the barrier isn’t at the top of the ladder with the glass (or concrete) ceiling, it’s at the bottom! Women are less likely than men to be promoted to a management role from their entry-level positions. Last year, for every 100 men promoted, only 87 women were promoted, and it was even less for women of color: 73, a reduction from the prior year’s number of 80. For Black women, it’s even lower at 54.

Many factors cause this broken rung to exist, including microaggressions, unconscious bias, misperception on work flexibility, lack of mentorship, etc. Companies need to acknowledge these exist and make conscious efforts to address them. Don’t assume if someone requests hybrid work accommodations that less work is going to get done. If deadlines and deliverables are met, why require a standard workday at their desk? Set achievable goals for gender and racial diversity targets and have a clear set of KPIs. No more fluffy DEI training to check a box!

Having been on the receiving end of numerous microaggressions throughout my career, I cannot stress enough these behaviors need to be called out when they occur. Don’t foster a culture allowing this type of behavior to thrive. Well-organized, meaningful mentorship is critical through any stage of one’s career, but they are especially impactful at the early stages. Professional development will have a great ROI. Investing in your team members doesn’t only help them, it helps the company.

While I wasn’t thrilled with the slow progress of 2023 for women in leadership, I will remain optimistic the increase seen last year will continue into 2024.

Melanie Bonsu is community relations manager for Worcester manufacturer Saint-Gobain Abrasives, Inc. - North America.

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