Repairing the broken rung on the career ladder for women in technical roles

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Companies across industries are looking to increase the representation of women who work in technical roles—including in engineering, product management, and other fast-growing fields. There has been an increased focus on gender parity in new hires and on greater equality in executive roles. But companies may be missing another critical moment: equitable advancement in early promotion.

Across all industries and roles, women are promoted at a slower rate than men. Indeed, only 86 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men at the same level, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 report, coauthored with LeanIn.Org. But the gender gap for women in technical roles is more pronounced, with only 52 women being promoted to manager for every 100 men. Diversity is especially crucial in these roles to help debias the technologies that make up an ever-present and evolving component of modern life.1 Further, McKinsey research has shown that a strong relationship exists between diversity on leadership teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance for companies: the most gender-diverse companies are 48 percent more likely to outperform the least gender-diverse companies.

McKinsey and Girls in Tech set out to better understand the barriers that impede women in technical roles from earning early promotions. We conducted nearly 40 interviews with early-tenure individuals in technical roles and with the leaders and supervisors who oversee promotions, among others.2 What we learned is that some companies are instituting a systematic approach to advancing women in technical roles and reaping the benefits of a more diverse, inclusive, and higher-performing workforce. In this article, we describe three enablers that have helped companies repair the broken rung on the career ladder for women in technical roles: providing equitable access to skill building, implementing a structured process that seeks to debias promotions, and building a strong culture of support for women via mentors (who can provide encouragement and empathy, as well as help women work toward goals and address challenges or obstacles) and sponsors (who can create opportunities and actively advocate for the advancement of those they sponsor).

Why the broken rung matters

Early promotions in a career are most critical to success,3 and yet for the past eight years, McKinsey research has consistently shown that women lose ground in the step up to manager. According to data from our research conducted for the Women in the Workplace 2021 report, women hold only 34 percent of entry-level engineering and product roles and just 26 percent of first-level manager positions, compared with 48 percent of entry-level roles and 41 percent of first-level manager positions in the pipeline overall.

By failing to promote and retain women in technical roles who are in the early stages of their careers, companies end up preparing fewer women for senior roles. This affects women’s lives and livelihoods and could create negative financial and cultural consequences for companies, since companies where women are well represented at the top earn up to 50 percent higher profits and share performance.

Most of the leaders we interviewed acknowledged that their companies have uneven early-promotions processes that perpetuate the broken rung on the career ladder for women in technical roles. But few said that their companies had begun to monitor the advancement of women in these roles during the first five years after they are hired. And while many interviewees said that their companies offer mentorship programs, conscious inclusion training, and other diversity and inclusion programs, only a small number could name interventions aimed at achieving gender parity in promotions for early-tenure women.

“There is something unique about retaining a woman ‘A’ player. It requires out-of-the-box thinking and creativity that we are not applying today. We wait until women are ready to leave before we get creative about giving them roles they’ll enjoy.” —Female chief experience office, technology

What can be done and how to get it right

Fixing the broken rung will require concentrated efforts. Our interviews highlighted three enablers that companies have used to help women in technical roles secure a track toward important early-career promotions (Exhibit 1).

Successful early-tenure promotions for women in technical roles rely on three mutually reinforcing enablers.

1. Provide equitable access to training, projects, and other resources to accelerate skill building for women in technical roles

For a promotion to be successful, the new role should be a good fit, in both skill level and temperament, for the advancing employee; the person who’s moved up should be able to thrive and continue to grow in the new position. For this to happen, groundwork needs to be laid ahead of time via access to timely opportunities that help colleagues demonstrate their growth and maturity and readiness to advance. Our interviews suggest that companies can better support the advancement of women in technical roles by providing them with opportunities to build a wide array of skills, along with structured guidance on their professional development. Leading companies can expand formal skills development beyond technical training, offering resources such as sessions on how to prioritize career development and how to be effective in promotion interviews; matching programs that pair women with sponsors (who can offer seniority, power, and influence to help those they are sponsoring meet their goals); networking groups; and a formalized professional-development process.

Companies can better support the advancement of women in technical roles by providing them with opportunities to build a wide array of skills, along with structured guidance on their professional development.

It’s also important for women in technical roles to join high-visibility projects where they can develop their skills on the job. One interviewee, from a tech firm, explained that their company had created a skills-based promotion process for early-tenure employees. The process specified indicators of success for milestones linked to promotion decisions. However, the company hadn’t created an easy way for employees to find projects where they could develop the skills expected at higher ranks. Feeling deprived of these valuable opportunities, women told us they perceived promotions as unattainable, and many chose to leave. To correct this, some companies have created project databases where tech employees can search for opportunities according to the type of skills required.

“Early promotions can be heavily influenced by perception. If you have one good project, high visibility or proximity to the right leaders, you become part of the inner circle and get promoted faster. We are geographically diverse, but it may be that people in the headquarters interact more with senior leadership and get the best projects. We are implementing an early-career program that tries to curtail the ‘inner circle’ problem by enabling women to have more meet and greets, rotational opportunities, and formal mentorship.” —Female HR leader, healthcare

2. Implement a structured approach to early promotions

Our interviews suggest that many organizations could do much more to standardize their promotion processes for early-tenure technical roles and eliminate unintentional bias. Only two of the 40 leaders we spoke with said that their organizations do not have a broken-rung problem. Both work for large, Fortune 100 technology companies that have invested heavily in highly structured, clear, and transparent systems, with well-defined skills criteria for each role and level (Exhibit 2). Both companies have developed extensive manager training programs, built accountability into their processes, and set clear bars for when the first two promotions should be expected. Employees at these companies check in with managers frequently to ensure that they have access to projects that will help them gain the skills they need to advance, and when employees don’t advance in the projected timelines, senior leaders follow up to understand the impediments. Early-tenure promotions are decided by committee rather than by individuals, and bias checks are integrated into the process. Because these companies set expectations in which everyone must advance within a specified time, they are effectively aiming for 100 percent participation in early-tenure promotions.

One company used a multistep approach to help create fair and equitable early-tenure promotions.

“My company had a timeline for when you should be asking questions of your mentor [about being promoted]. The structure was incredible for me because it gave me the opportunity to have the right conversations and a perspective on where I should be in the process. It was like running a marathon and having someone tell you where the water stations are.” —Female supervisor, industrial

Women who work at organizations that lack a clear, equitable promotion structure for early-tenure employees say they face an upward pathway that can be ambiguous, uneven, and biased. For example, one interviewee mentioned a company rule that employees must work full-time for seven months or more within a calendar year before being considered for promotion. This requirement omits many women who take maternity leave. Other interviewees said that their companies’ promotion processes tend to favor people with close proximity to leaders, which can impede the advancement of employees who work remotely or in satellite offices. Obstacles such as these make it difficult for women in technical roles to earn promotions.

“The word I’d use to describe promotions is ‘struggle.’ I personally have seen people that look like me continue to be overlooked for promotions. We have to work two to five times harder to get a promotion. In my seven years here, I’ve been promoted multiple times. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears on my end and me raising a concern as to why there aren’t more people that look like me represented in the leadership team.” —Female supervisor, media

3. Connect early-tenure women with capable managers, mentors, and sponsors

Recognizing that senior colleagues play a valuable role in the professional development of workers who are early in their careers, leading companies take measures to help women in technical roles connect with people who have more experience. Direct managers often play an especially important role in the professional lives of early-tenure employees. They have the most direct view of the employee’s responsibilities and performance, and they serve as the coach, advocate, and decision maker for the employee’s promotion. However, many managers of junior tech employees have little management training or experience themselves. Even with good intentions, they can create uneven experiences for early-tenure workers.

Leading companies counter these shortcomings by investing in the development of managers at lower levels. A new manager at a tech company, who had just received her second promotion, told us about the stress of having to promote people for the first time. However, her company provided extensive training and documentation to help her make a strong case for the advancement of her team’s members. Her own supervisor also stepped in, setting up quarterly meetings to discuss the potential promotions for her team. All these actions gave the new manager the tools that helped her to act as a sponsor for her own team.

“When I went for my first chief architect role, I didn’t get it. Then the head of enterprise architecture called me and said, ‘You were number two. Let me tell you what you need to work on.’ He gave me actionable feedback. If he had not called, I don’t know if I would’ve gone for it again. Who knows how that would’ve affected my path? He gave me something actionable, and that is a gift I now give to everyone I meet. One year later, I got promoted because I worked on what he said, and I was prepared for the next opportunity.” —Female chief engineer, banking

Mentors and sponsors can help women in technical roles develop leadership and management skills, improve their interviewing abilities, and focus on the skills needed to advance. Indeed, at companies that lack clear promotion structures or well-trained managers, mentors and sponsors play an outsize part in educating and coaching women on a company’s unwritten expectations, and in advocating for their advancement.

A chief information officer at a large bank told us about her experience receiving support from sponsors. When she first became eligible for promotion, she believed that she could apply only if all her skills matched the stated job requirements. But her sponsors counseled her that the leaders in charge of promotions considered some skills essential but saw others as skills that candidates could develop on the job. One particular leader advised her on which specific skills to develop and showcase. Acting on that feedback, she felt well prepared for the promotion interview and advanced quickly.

There is ample opportunity for companies to focus on the early-career development of women in technical roles and to deepen a talent pool that is integral to their success. Our research shows what leading companies have done to make career development easier—and fairer—for women in technical roles. The combination of career-development opportunities, structured promotion processes, and support from senior colleagues has proven effective at advancing and retaining women in technical roles and can, in time, help diversify leadership teams. While these interventions may feel applicable to women in any role, the impact on technology functions by applying them can be significant—particularly because only a few companies are focusing on the broken rung in those fields today. And these improvements are not only good for business performance: they can also help women in technical roles realize significant professional benefits of their own.

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