Speaking up, and speaking out: How to overcome the ‘broken rung’

International Women’s Day: How to overcome the ‘broken rung’? 

The data from McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report shows that, at entry level, the workforce is fairly balanced: 51% male, 49% female. However, that percentage declines at every step of the career ladder, until at senior management level only 22% are women. McKinsey calls it the broken rung that prevents women’s progress. 

The fact is it is still a significantly uneven playing field out there, and it is still harder for women’s careers to progress. Unlike previous decades when the discrimination against women was overt, today the issues are often much more subtle. 

They are issues such as interruption, idea appropriation, judgement, criticism, unequal pay, double standards, microaggressions, and unconscious bias. To name just a few.

There are clearly measures that organisations need to put in place to help promote change and overcome these issues. But what can you, as an individual, do to help your own career get past the broken rung? 


Speaking up, and speaking out

The biggest single thing is to be visible, to speak and to be heard.

But speaking up and speaking out has often proven to be a barrier for women. There are societal paradigms that effectively press on women and subconsciously encourage them not to speak up. Many women may also feel uncomfortable speaking in public scenario’s e.g. meetings or presentations, and when they do, they often find it hard to be heard. 

And when women are not heard it can prove to be a major issue for their careers. 


Breaking through ‘the glass wall’

More than a glass ceiling, it’s a glass wall that women frequently walk into – they do not see the issues clearly so they do not realise what is in front of them until they crash into this glass wall, or fall off the career ladder at the broken rung. After all, it’s hard to deal with what you do not clearly see. 

A study by Catalyst found that self-advocacy skills (the ability to speak up for yourself) have a higher correlation to workplace status and pay than merit. In other words, it may not be fair, but it’s true: speaking well is better for your career than working hard. 


‘Wading through treacle’

Being heard in meetings, for example, is important. It’s where reputations are built and people start seeing you as a problem solver, as an ideas person, or as leadership material. 

In meetings, however, many women often face interruptions when they speak! In fact, one senior woman I spoke to said it feels like ‘wading through treacle’ trying to get herself heard in her own meetings. 

Many women therefore take a different approach. Instead of struggling to be heard in meetings, they take things offline, preferring to talk to people one-on-one. And this, of course, can work. However, it means that people do not see or hear you, and you’re not capitalising on the opportunity to share ideas or resolve issues. 

Without visibility, you do not always get credit for your abilities and contributions. When that becomes your habit then, over time, it could significantly negatively impact your career. 


Finding your voice in meetings and presentations

Similarly, if you avoid making presentations you are not visible, heard or acknowledged.

Many people (men and women) hate giving presentations, and yet they are a critical opportunity to showcase your work, achievements, and ideas. 

Most people in your organisation probably don’t work with you on a day-to-day basis, so the way the wider organisation will judge your professional competence largely comes from what they see of you in public. Including meetings and presentations. 

The ability to speak well in these environments therefore is pivotal to your whole professional credibility. And it’s a skill you must master if you’re serious about career progression. 


What should you do about it? 

First of all, make it your business to get really good at speaking in public. No matter what the forum is. 

Grab every course on public speaking you can. Consider getting a voice coach or speaking coach, join speaking organisations (like Toastmasters) to get practice, read books, watch YouTube videos, get a ‘speaking buddy’ and agree to give feedback to develop each other’s skills. 

There are many ways to develop your skills and confidence. The starting point is for you to prioritise them, and start actioning. 

That way, you can make it your business to be heard! 


Ready to find your new start? View all available jobs now. 


Patricia SeabrightPatricia Seabright is the Founder and Director of Archimedes Consulting, and a passionate advocate of gender balance in the workplace. She has recently published a book, ‘She Said!’, which is a practical handbook for women speaking and being heard, overcoming the silencing drivers and unconscious bias in organisations.

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