How do you deal with the “broken rung” that affects women trying to climb the corporate ladder? One way is to enlist the help of other women.
The image of the broken rung was popularized by a landmark LeanIn.Org and McKinsey study that showed men outnumber women almost 2 to 1 in first-level manager jobs. That first missed promotion creates an imbalance, the research showed, that follows women throughout their careers.
Maryland Smith alumnae Meg Goldthwaite, MBA ’96, chief marketing officer at NPR, and Sherika Ekpo, MBA ’09, global diversity and inclusion lead at Google AI, know about ladders. Speaking on March 5 at Maryland Smith’s annual Women Inspire event, they challenged attendees to keep climbing and to champion the high-skilled women in their lives who are also on the ladder.
They offered advice for how to move a new, larger generation of women leaders into the highest corridors of power:
- Sometimes you’ll stumble. Let other women lift you. Leaders fail over and over (and over again) as their careers progress. Support the women around you by coming to their assistance professionally and personally—and allow them to do the same for you. This could be as simple as reminding someone they are competent and capable despite whatever setbacks they have.
- Speak up for other women, even if they aren’t in the room. Support the good ideas of your female co-workers. Advocate for their ideas by saying something as simple as “Piggybacking off what Jane said…” before restating and building upon it. “It’s known that women don’t promote their accomplishments as much,” Ekpo said. “We have to use each other as support networks, and share what we are doing.”
- Share your network across boundaries. Personal and professional networks often follow socioeconomic and racial lines, according to Ekpo. Open your network to smart women outside of your group’s typical socioeconomic and racial confines. Good opportunities in employment often spread through word of mouth and referrals. Support women in leadership by passing along advancement opportunities and advocating for women who do not have access to your network.
- Be a sponsor. Ruthlessly advocate for promising women whose careers in leadership you’ve decided to champion. Have conversations, send emails and make phone calls on their behalf. Work to get them the attention (and compensation) they deserve.
- Be a mentor. Mentors provide accountability and serve as a check-in point for the women they advise. They ask how things are going, and help set goals or provide direction to achieve career advancement. They make suggestions and provide support when times are tough. "I have what I refer to as a personal board of directors," Goldthwaite said, of her sponsors and mentors. "I think that's very important."
Maryland Smith professor Nicole M. Coomber moderated the discussion, which took place in the Grand Ballroom at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union on Maryland’s College Park campus.
It was a new iteration for the annual event, now in its ninth year and previously known as Women Leading Women.
“The goal of Women Inspire is to showcase Maryland Smith’s fearless alumnae leaders who are excelling in business – from business school to the C-suite,” said Mark Forrest, program director for Maryland Smith’s Office of Alumni Relations. It brings together a multi-generational audience, he added, “to hear candid, thought-provoking conversations about the professional journey of Smith graduates.”