“The Broken Rung”

Today I had the pleasure of doing something I truly love to do, share my story with others interested in using their PhDs in, shall we say, unconventional ways. I enjoy this both because everyone enjoys talking about themselves to some degree and because I know how hard I looked for models for what to do with my degree other than become a tenure-tracked professor. Most of the conversations I have around this topic are with individuals (and mostly women) who are looking at how to make that initial transition from the bench to somewhere else (I could do a whole series on why this fact makes me sad, more women leaving the bench). I know that initial transition looks daunting enough that thinking beyond this first leap can be challenging. At the same time, I am slightly disappointed that so few women I talk to express an initial interest or long-term goal of management or leadership of some kind. The vast majority of women I’ve talked to have wanted to make a transition from research into project management. That transition in-and-of-itself is not surprising, nor troubling. Much of what researchers do and the skills they hold are easily transferable to project management. At the same time, project management is a great career tract with plenty of opportunity for advancement. The part that troubles me is when I bring up 5-year goals and how few women have leadership in those goals.

I suppose I shouldn’t be terribly surprised if I stop to think about it. Women have become an increasing proportion of the senior leadership in the business world, however, they continue to be under-represented at every level of management. The 2019 Women in Leadership Report compiled by McKinsey finds that women are almost equally represented in entry-level positions but are not promoted to managers as frequently as men. So the glass ceiling is not as much of an issue as what they called “the broken rung”, getting that first opportunity to manage. The situation is particularly acute in the health-care and technology industries. A study by Silicon Valley Bank found that only 14% of start-ups in the US had a female CEO, and more than half of US start-ups lack women anywhere in their leadership.

Reading through this report, a little light bulb went off in my head. I have always had a nagging little notion that I would like to lead. Being from a family steeped in the military, I always gravitated toward military concepts of leadership, “leave no person behind”, “leaders eat last”, etc. But leading was not an explicit career goal of mine until I went to the Gates Foundation and found myself with a magnificent female manager. She was truly a powerhouse and enjoyed mentoring. In that environment, I found myself thinking that I wanted to be like her, that I wanted to aim higher, to make it to the C-suite. The idea of representation and seeing examples of what is possible, is truly remarkable. Of course men strive to move up into management, most managers are men. It seems natural for them. And because they want that, they work to make the right connections, get the right skills, etc. Perhaps the reason so many women don’t have leadership or management as a 5-year goal is that they don’t see enough women in those positions.

If gender representation matters, other minority representation is an even more acute issue. If women make up only 38% of first-time manager, women of color are a shockingly low percentage of that number and the percentage gets worse and worse as you move up the leadership chain.

Of course representation isn’t the whole story. Bias and discrimination come into play here as well.

Of course, representation isn’t going to solve these gaps alone. However, having real representation means that some of the underlying issues are starting to be addressed, issues around equal opportunity and manager support. And true and diverse representation is not a goal merely because it’s the right thing to do. Companies that have more diverse management perform better. A 2017 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that diverse teams produce 19% more revenue and a HBR study of venture capitalists found that diversity improved financial performance.

So what’s the final thought here for me. The final thought is that I will always make time to talk to anyone who wants to know more about what I do and how they might move into a managerial position. It also means that I have a personal commitment to diversity on the team I manage, not just diversity but inclusion, ensuring that those diverse perspectives are heard and contribute to decisions we make. This is not an easy road, upending processes and systems that have been in place for a long time while also re-training our own personal biases. Little changes can make a big difference though. (Ok, so that was several final thoughts. I never promised to be succinct).


  1. Women in the Workplace 2019: https://wiw-report.s3.amazonaws.com/Women_in_the_Workplace_2019.pdf
  2. 2020 Women in US Technology Leadership Report: https://www.svb.com/globalassets/library/uploadedfiles/content/trends_and_insights/reports/women-in-us-technology-leadership-2020-silicon-valley-bank.pdf
  3. Diverse Teams Boost Innovation (Boston Consulting Group): https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/how-diverse-leadership-teams-boost-innovation
  4. The Other Diversity Dividend (HBR): https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-other-diversity-dividend

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