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Women & Power 2023

How a ‘broken rung’ can stop women in middle of the career ladder

New research uncovers hidden obstacles for women seeking to boost their skills and advance in tech.

laura liedo for the boston globe

Read more from the 2023 Women & Power issue.

Midcareer can be a tricky time for professional women — maybe the trickiest. It’s that moment when they’re just not getting the challenging assignments and pivotal promotions they need to accelerate their careers. Researchers theorize that this is when the classic obstacles women always face — a lack of mentors who look like them, or the belief they’ll be distracted by motherhood, or that they’re too emotional — can become more problematic just as higher-ups are making crucial decisions about who gets the best opportunities for professional growth.

“That is something that happens to women throughout their careers, but it is just so salient at midcareer,” says Colleen Ammerman, director of the Race, Gender and Equity Initiative at Harvard Business School.

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Referred to as “the broken rung,” this phenomenon was emphasized in the Women in the Workplace 2023 report, released last month by McKinsey in partnership with LeanIn.org. It says the broken rung is “the greatest obstacle” to senior leadership — even more so for Black women and Latinas. In the corporate world, the report says, women make up nearly half of entry-level employees, but 36 percent of managers/directors. A mere 9 percent of directors are women of color.

New research led by Jacqueline Ng Lane, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, along with HBS colleague Karim R. Lakhani, a business administration professor, and Roberto M. Fernandez, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, has started to shed light on some of the reasons for the shrinking proportion of women making up each successive level. Their research has also revealed subtle dynamics at play. “These women (applicants) are quite accomplished in their careers already, so you might think there should be no difference,” Lane says. “But what we learned was, that just wasn’t true — there’s still this aspect that is different by gender.”

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A few years ago, Lane decided to examine how women pursue and enroll in midcareer training programs. She partnered with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, a midcareer certificate course. From the beginning, the program aimed for an even split between men and women. But when it launched in 2018, the first cohort was roughly two-thirds men. In looking to explain this disparity, Lane focused on the earliest stages of the enrollment process: attracting and recruiting potential students.

The program worked with an external company, known as an online program manager, to manage the initial outreach to potential students. Prospects who filled out an online form were randomly assigned to recruiters who would then decide whom to contact and how assertively. Reviewing the company’s data for more than 166,000 prospects, Lane found recruiters were more likely to reach out to men and had longer conversations with male candidates. And women needed more impressive résumés to make the cut for recruiter outreach.

“They held women to a higher bar: more work experience, more achievements,” Lane says. The findings were pre-published online May 31 and are forthcoming in the journal Organization Science.

These outcomes are probably the result of something more nuanced than outright sexism, Lane says. Recruiters were held to performance metrics based on the number of students who enrolled and the number of students they called. These two dynamics could have led the recruiters to subconsciously use mental shortcuts to target the leads who seemed most likely to apply and enroll. “If you’re just looking at it from a pure efficiency perspective, you’re going to look for people who are most likely to be a good fit,” Lane says. “Historically, for a STEM program, that’s more likely to be a midcareer male.”

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The good news is that relatively small changes can boost women’s chances of enrolling in training programs — and reaping the benefits they offer. Changing the recruiters’ incentive structure could alleviate the pressure to find likely students as quickly as possible, potentially reducing disparities, Lane says. Small tweaks to promotional images and communications could also make a difference by attracting more women to click the “Learn More” link in the first place, says Stefan Esposito, former director of Harvard’s business analytics certificate. “If we get 90 percent men clicking on our ads, then we’re not doing a good job in our messaging,” he says.

The business analytics program added more images of women to the photos in its communications and featured testimonials from a broader range of graduates on its website and in promotional materials.

The changes might have made the difference. By its fifth cohort, the program achieved the gender parity it set its sights on. “Women can say, ‘She was in my shoes, and look where she is now,’” Esposito says. “It can be a very powerful way for people to feel belonging.”

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Sarah Shemkus is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.