The Pandemic Made the “Broken Rung” Worse. Here’s How to Fix It.

While leadership and development are keys to the solution, there is a greater need to address institutional and cultural factors broadly.

Training Magazine

Thanks to excellent research, the fact that diversity is beneficial for organizations in numerous ways, including innovation, creativity, and profitability, has become far better recognized. Yet research also shows that the proverbial “broken rung”—the phenomenon in which women gradually disappear from the workforce or get stalled in low- or mid-level roles on their way up the career ladder—continues to be a problem has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 3 million women have collectively left the workforce over the last year and a half. Whereas at the rate of progress before the pandemic, it would have taken 100 years to reach gender parity in C-suite leadership roles, that number is now being projected as 135 years.

This is a critical statistic because, as mentioned, gender diversity is proven to improve organizations’ business and financial performance at both the leadership and employee levels. For example, adding just one woman to a board of directors can positively affect business performance, particularly in male-dominated industries. To reverse some of the damage over the last year and a half and, ideally, to improve the baseline rate of progress towards gender parity, leaders must take proactive efforts to retain, advance, and provide support for women in the workforce.

The pandemic made the broken rung worse because women are disproportionately represented in jobs and industries where they are more vulnerable to being furloughed or laid off during periods of crisis and uncertainty. Moreover, many women felt it necessary to leave work or reduce their hours to care for family, especially their children. This is not surprising given that mothers are three times as likely as fathers to be primarily responsible for domestic labor and taking care of children. Women of color, in particular, have been impacted the hardest due to additional disadvantages that come with racial disparities. However, it’s important to point out that women are not leaving work or reducing their hours because they want to but rather due to a host of complex societal and cultural biases and expectations that place undue pressure on them to make these choices. Conversely, their male counterparts are not expected to make the same accommodations.

Grooming Future Women Leaders

One often-overlooked critical factor behind the broken rung is that women in the workplace do not have the same opportunities for mentoring and coaching as men do. But companies can address this issue with coaching and leadership development programs designed specifically for female employees (and, by extension, female employees of color and people of color in general). Two organizations currently doing good work in this area can serve as exemplary models for going about this.

One of them is The Coaching Fellowship, a non-profit based in Northern California that provides very low-cost executive leadership coaching to young women worldwide who exhibit high potential. This makes executive coaching more accessible to those who would otherwise not be able to afford the expensive rates of most coaching programs. Longitudinal research carried out by students and faculty in USC’s Master of Science in Applied Psychology (MAPP) program showed that The Coaching Fellowship had a significantly positive impact on the participants’ leadership skills immediately after the program and six months afterward. Beneficial effects included increased confidence, courage, and understanding of their values–essential benefits proven to enhance leadership capability.

Another program doing fine work is SOAR, a for-profit organization that provides leadership development programs for women as well as both women and men of color. It works with primary, blue-chip companies such as Toyota, UPS, and Procter & Gamble. In a case study involving UPS, participating in the SOAR program led to a multifaceted ROI for UPS. Participants had better management skills, increased confidence, improved communication skills, higher retention, and higher career advancement due to the program. This led to improved performance from teams led by the SOAR participants, a pool of rising talent, and increased retention among female supervisors at the company. And more recently, a survey of SOAR graduates over the past 15 years revealed that 85 percent indicated the program made them better leaders. The majority stated that the program had boosted their career progression.

Addressing the Cultural Factors

While the focus of this article has been to stress the importance of leadership development and coaching, we must not forget that there are societal and cultural factors that reinforce and sustain the broken rung phenomenon, such as implicit biases, toxic workplace cultures, and social isolation within the workplace. Therefore, while leadership coaching and development programs for women and people of color are a key part of the solution, leaders and organizations need to understand that there is a greater need to address institutional and cultural factors broadly. This can be done through initiatives such as cultural awareness education, equity-based hiring and promotion practices, and comprehensive DEI strategies. Each of these touches on complex issues that go beyond the scope of this article. Still, it is important to acknowledge them in any discussion about the broken rung, as it is a multidimensional problem.

No single cause creates the lack of progress that women and people of the color face but rather a complex interplay of multiple cultural and institutional causes. Hence there cannot be just one solution. But providing more opportunities for the leadership development and coaching of women and people of color is one critical solution, and some successful for-profit and not-for-profit organizations are making a real impact.

Meredith Wells Lepley and Lauren C. Young
Meredith Wells Lepley, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Psychology in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California and President of Workplace Surveys & Solutions, LLC. Lauren C. Young, Ed.D. is a Lecturer in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California and is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at Travelers Insurance.