How to fix ‘the broken rung’ and improve gender diversity in your organisation

Missing the first managerial step (‘the broken rung’) is a big obstacle women face on their path to higher levels in an organisation.

Did you know that women are 14% less often promoted to manager than men [1]?

This has a long-term impact on the pipeline and is a risk in getting to a minimum of 40% women in senior levels and being able to create a real gender inclusive culture.

The age when employees take their first step up to manager (30-39)[2] is the same age at which women often become mothers.

Therefore, supporting women with the challenges around becoming a mum is a key element for fixing ‘the broken rung’ and improving gender diversity.

Fix the broken rung to improve gender diversity

And this doesn’t mean offering women well intentioned ‘mummy tracks’  with reduced hours, smaller deals or other type of projects. Because actually, these ‘mummy tracks’ often hold back women’s promotion.

Instead, focus on real game changing interventions: create a flexible working culture, build a network of role models, develop a sponsorship programme and offer coaching programmes.

Flexible working culture

Most companies, also before the pandemic started, have a flexible working policy, but there isn’t a flexible working culture. Flexible working is often still even stigmatised.

So, make sure you take conscious actions in creating a flexible culture for everyone. Building trust, open communication in teams and leading by example are essential.
For example, when a senior leader shows he works flexible and communicates about the benefits (being able to do more sports or attend the nativity play of his daughter) this has a huge impact on the rest of the organisation.

Network of role models

A network of role models is essential to get women higher in the organisation.

“Seeing is believing”.

It can be built in your own company or together with other companies, like for example with Rolemodel Rebels.

In such a network women at different positions can share their experiences. For example, which barriers did they overcome and what were the learnings.  These individual journeys can really help to challenge women’s own preconceptions and demonstrate what is possible.

Within a network of role models specific matching can take place as well. For example, matching every female talent, who returns to work after maternity leave, with a mentor who has a more senior position and children.

Network of rolemodels


It’s good to point out that sponsorship is not the same as mentorship. A mentor provides advice and guidance and is often formally assigned. A sponsor advocates for someone, like making introductions or speaking up for someone in promotions committees and often forms in a more natural way.

Because of homophily (our tendency to prefer relationships with people who are similar to us) and their strong informal networks, men quite naturally get sponsorship. Where women often only have mentors.

And unfortunately, mentorship is unlikely to drive careers forward.

Therefore, it’s important to intentionally provide a sponsorship programme.

To make it as successful as possible make sure that most of the sponsors are men, so women can benefit indirectly from their formal and informal networks. Besides that, men at higher positions in the organisation can learn more about the experiences and needs of female talents with children. 

Return to work after pregnancy 


When women start working again after their maternity leave (in the UK often after 1 year) it can feel like ‘onboarding’. This can be a stage where women leave their career path: drop out or change jobs. Coaching women in the final stage of their pregnancy and at the end of maternity leave is therefore a great self-affirmation intervention. It impacts women’s self-doubt positively.

  • Women feel valued and supported in finding the right balance between their young family and work. This has a positive effect on their performance.
  • They are supported in the change to working in combination with motherhood and this reduces the chance of dropping out.
  • When returning to work, women can quickly add value again, which leads to higher motivation, trust and commitment.
  • Career development remains an important theme despite the changing personal circumstances.

Do you recognise ‘the broken rung’ and how does your organisation score on each of these interventions?

Women in the workplace 2021, McKinsey&Company and LeanIn, 2021.

[2] We wait too long to train our leaders, Jack Zenger, Harvard Business Review, 2012.