Last fall, McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.Org released the fifth annual “Women in the Workplace” report. It described a “broken rung,” a phenomenon in which “the biggest obstacle women face on the path to senior leadership is at the first step up to manager.” For every hundred men who are promoted to a first-time manager position, researchers found, only 72 women are. “Not surprisingly, men end up holding 62 percent of manager-level positions, while women hold just 38 percent.” The numbers are even worse for women of color, with 68 Latina women and 58 black women being promoted for every 100 men.

Do fewer women than men want to be managers? The answer to this gap is probably not that straightforward. First of all, there is no evidence that Latina and black women want to be managers less than white women do. Second of all, researchers told the Wall Street Journal, women (71%) and men (74%) say in roughly equal numbers that they want to be promoted into management positions.

So, it seems that women are being promoted less frequently for other reasons, which research suggests include conscious and unconscious bias in performance evaluation practices, high potential (HiPo) programs and leadership training, as well as inequitable access to coaches, mentors and sponsors.

Contributors to the Broken Rung

Training Industry research has found significant differences in the quality of the leadership development provided to men and women: In a survey of male and female leaders, men were 50% more likely to say that the leadership training they received was “very effective” in positively impacting their performance as a leader. They were also more likely to have received training in skills like strategic thinking and negotiation that are critical to leadership success.

Martin Lanik, chief executive officer of Pinsight and lead author of a 2020 research report titled “Repairing the Broken Rung: Overcoming Bias in the Leadership Pipeline,” said that fewer than 10% of organizations use objective data to identify future leaders — leaving a lot of room for bias in these decisions.

“In most companies, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that’s keeping women and minorities behind,” Lanik said. “Men hold more managerial positions; managers make nomination decisions about who has high potential; men hold more positive assumptions (biases) towards other white men when evaluating leadership potential; more men are identified by their managers as high-potential employees; high-potential employees get access to more developmental resources and are more likely to be promoted; [and] as a result, men are promoted more often and hold more managerial positions.”

Addie Swartz, CEO of reacHIRE, believes that the most significant contributor to the leadership gender gap is that women don’t have access to critical support early in their careers, especially if they’re in a male-dominated workplace or industry. “Investing even a little bit earlier in this group’s career,” she says, “can make a significant difference.”

Equitable Succession Planning

That investment, Lanik believes, starts with equitable succession planning and HiPo development. Pinsight’s research found that when it comes to selecting future leaders, there was “unintentional discrimination against women in almost half of organizations and against racial minorities in two-thirds of organizations … across most industries.” For every woman organizations place into a HiPo program, according to this research, they place almost two men. Lanik recommends using an objective form of measurement, such as a learning agility test or an assessment center, to “level the playing field.”

Swartz also believes that it’s important to support the entire pipeline of female talent and says that reacHIRE’s mission is to do so in two ways: through return-to-work programs for women in the middle of their careers and through the Aurora platform,” a new platform aimed at early-career women. Development is essential to retaining talent, she says, especially young women.

Effective Leadership Training

“One of the specific challenges early-career women face is a lack of access to employer-provided services that can help them navigate and grow their careers,” Swartz says. Leadership training is, of course, one of those services, and she recommends focusing on “setting and achieving goals, operating with high impact, influencing and building relationships, and developing resilience.”

Leadership training is most effective when it’s personalized to each unique woman, says Lanik. Then, focus on a single leadership skill or “micro-behavior” at a time. “Perfect the micro-behavior, turn it into a habit and then move on to the next skill,” he says.

Training Industry’s research suggests that some training modalities may be more effective than others in helping women develop leadership skills. For example, instructor-led training (ILT), on-the-job training, videos and eLearning are all modalities that women say they like to use for leadership development.

The Importance of Relationships

Finally, developing leaders need people to help them along the way. Swartz notes that “women are 2.5 times more likely to become high performers if they have a tight-knit circle of supportive women at work.” This network should include both peers and more experienced mentors, sponsors and coaches.

In fact, Training Industry’s research found that when organizations provide women with formal coaching, the leadership training effectiveness gap almost completely disappears. Providing new female leaders and HiPo women with a coach to work with them on their leadership skills, confidence, and professional and personal development can go a long way toward making them effective leaders and building out the leadership pipeline.

Lanik agrees that there’s a large body of research supporting the idea that coaching is an effective tool in developing leaders. “Based on our research,” he says, “the gender gap exists because access to powerful interventions like coaching is not readily available for women.” Equitable access to coaching, then, is one key to fixing the broken rung.

Providing support and development opportunities to young women interested in becoming managers is critical. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also helps an organization develop a strong, sustainable pipeline of talent to climb the ranks — hopefully as part of the same business. In a time of turbulence, don’t forget that your HiPo employees are waiting in the wings to lead your organization through this crisis and whatever happens next.