Why women need early career promotions (and how to get one)

It’s widely acknowledged that the technology industry needs more women in leadership positions. Not to mention more women in the industry period, adding diverse perspectives and input to the systems and platforms being developed. 

But there’s another obstacle facing females in technology – as Girls in Tech recently explored in a study conducted with McKinsey & Company. The issue is:

“Women in technical roles are less likely than men to win promotions early in their careers, and many are exiting the field.” 

Research shows that women are missing out on early advancement opportunities, creating tension throughout their careers. In technology, only 52 women are promoted to manager for every 100 men – a significant blow to our fight for gender equality.

So why is it happening, what can companies do to help, and what can YOU do to actively push for promotions early in your career? That’s what we’re here to discuss.

Men get more promotions than women

This is the case across all industries, but even more so in tech – especially for women of color. There are a few reasons why it happens.

Unconscious bias

The unfortunate reality is that men and women are still viewed differently in the workplace. Assertive, ‘Type A’ behavior may be praised in a man but seen as ‘aggressive’ in a woman. And even the language used in workplaces can be condescending towards women – even if not intended so.

Almost a quarter of women leave their jobs due to bad bosses, whereas only 16% of men list a difficult manager as a reason – a potential sign that women and men are treated differently by their managers.

Research also indicates that men are hired based on their potential, whereas women are hired based on what they’ve already achieved. So women quite literally have more to prove.

Lack of support and company commitment

A LeanIn and Survey Monkey study found that women are 24% less likely to receive advice from senior leaders than men. And men are less comfortable mentoring women than they are other men.

Genuine support for career advancement starts with changing behaviors and attitudes towards women in the workplace, so they’re naturally positioned for, and considered for, promotion. 

Lack of female visibility 

Unspoken expectations about how women should behave often lead to women staying ‘invisible’ in the workplace. Some may feel expected to stay quiet, passive and humble – in contrast to the big, bold self-promotion encouraged in men. 

Case in point: the sheer number of women in tech who experience ‘imposter syndrome’, feeling they need to act a certain way to fit a role (rather than doing it the way they want).

The ‘broken rung’ has serious impact

McKinsey labels the issue of unequal early career progression a ‘broken rung on the career ladder’ (a great way to visualize it!). It impacts both organizational success and opportunities for women.

  • It decreases organizations’ profitability – Companies that have less diverse teams, particularly at managerial level, are less profitable.
  • It perpetuates the gender pay gap – Women that are slower to progress in their careers are further challenged by the question of when to start a family. Female fertility begins to decline in our 30s, right when many must choose between finally being promoted, or stepping back from work to have children.
  • It’s no wonder women in tech leave before age 35 – The endless cycle sees more men progress, and more women stagnate in their careers, leading over 50% of them to leave tech before they’re 35.

So what can we, as women, and as organizational leaders, do to change this narrative?

Advice for women seeking early career advancement

While you can’t change issues with society overnight, you can do a few things to push for those early career promotions for yourself.

  • Learn to manage your impression – It may sound like a sleazy, salesy, Mad Men-era technique to get promoted, but impression management is about learning to emphasize your strengths and project a confident image. It’s not ‘selling yourself’, but ‘being yourself’ – rather than staying quiet and invisible.

  • Learn to negotiate – Research shows that 57% of men try to negotiate their entry-level remuneration packages, compared to only 7% of women. This demonstrates the willingness of men to negotiate, even from the start of their career. Learn to negotiate in the workplace early on for faster progression.

  • Be aware of the ‘backlash effect’ – This is where women who are assertive and display leadership qualities are less liked than men with the same qualities. Learn to understand the personalities of the people present, and speak up in an effective way. A career mentor can be a great ally to have on your side as you navigate this.

  • Seek out mentorship and sponsorship opportunities – These may be internal or external to your company, and may be formal or informal. Networking is a good way to find a potential mentor or sponsor to elevate your career more quickly.

  • Just apply for promotions – Even when you don’t meet all the requirements, do it. Men tend to apply for roles when they meet only 60% of criteria, whereas women don’t unless they meet 100% of criteria. Take a leap, and don’t stand in your own way of advancement.

Advice for companies wanting to fix the broken rung

In technology, a key challenge is adjusting your company’s culture to promote more openness to female advancement. This generally starts with open, honest communication, and clear intentions.

  • Be transparent about your diversity goals – Women won’t bother pushing for promotions if they don’t think they have a chance of getting them. Research shows that women start their careers positive about their opportunities, but that this positivity plummets over time. Clearly communicating your intention when it comes to diversity goals can bolster their ambition.

  • Train hiring managers on bias – And go one step further than this by adopting technologies that remove unconscious bias from hiring and promoting processes.

  • Set specific evaluations with rating scales – Mentorship is one part of the puzzle, but women benefit more from holistic programs that incorporate performance evaluation and training as well.

  • Offer high quality mentorship and sponsorship programs – These are the types of programs that see genuine results. Not mentoring for the sake of mentoring, but programs that result in upskilling, confidence building, and that are proven to increase the rate of promotion.

  • Display an openness to feminine qualities – Women may not apply for internal promotions simply because they don’t seem to fit the role on paper. Adjusting this perspective can start with rewriting position descriptions to emphasize feminine-type qualities.

There are still systematic problems to solve when it comes to early career promotion for women. But change is possible, and it starts with action. Closing the first promotion gap would add 1 million women to management over the next five years – a positive step towards achieving a more equitable future in tech.

Interested in learning more about the broken rung in the career ladder? Read the full McKinsey report to dive further into the details.


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