Navigating the Waves of Progress a conversation with Dr. Alison Konrad

By: Jennifer Smith, FCMC

Dr. Alison Konrad - as someone deeply passionate about organizational behavior and gender inclusivity, I am thrilled you have agreed to share your insights and research related to the journey of women toward workplace equity – particularly at the most senior levels.

Reflecting back to the introduction of the Employment Equity Act in Canada (1995) almost 30 years ago – some might say we’ve come a long way baby…However, new studies including your research still shine a light on the under-representation of women in senior level positions – termed the C-Suite and on corporate Boards.

The Power of Data: A Glimpse into the McKinsey & Lean In Study

The study, released in 2023, is a significant addition to the ongoing discourse on gender diversity. It spans a wide range of industries and organizations, offering a nuanced perspective on the progress made and the challenges that persist. One notable aspect is the depth of data, allowing us to move beyond anecdotes and assumptions, and truly understand the dynamics at play.

This year’s research reveals some hard-fought gains at the top, with women’s representation in the C-suite at the highest it has ever been. However, with lagging progress in the middle of the pipeline—and a persistent underrepresentation of women of color—true parity remains painfully out of reach.

Dr. Konrad – What do you see as the greatest challenge of increasing the representation of women, particularly women of colour, and gender diverse people into senior leadership and decision-making positions – positions that have the power to drive change?

Celebrating Progress, Acknowledging Challenges

First and foremost, it's essential to celebrate the progress that has been achieved. Many organizations have made strides in recognizing the value of gender diversity and have implemented initiatives to level the playing field. However, the study also highlights the persistence of challenges, particularly as women advance in their careers.

The Broken Rung Phenomenon: A Closer Look

One striking revelation is the phenomenon known as the "broken rung." This metaphor captures the hurdle women face in the crucial step from entry-level to managerial positions. While strides have been made in placing women in entry-level roles, the McKinsey study reveals a bottleneck in the transition to managerial positions, hindering the upward trajectory of women into the senior level positions.

My research shows that the rung between middle-level management and senior-level executive is broken in many firms. Particularly in highly paid male-predominated industries, where moving more women into middle-level management does not lead to a later increase in female representation at the higher executive levels.  In these same firms, adding more women at the top does not move more women into middle-level management – there is no discernable trickle-down effect. Though this research is set in Australia, I have published other work that shows a similar mid-career bottleneck in a large Canadian firm. We need to focus on the broken rung to the executive suite in order to create meaningful change and really move the needle on leadership gender diversity.

The McKinsey study reveals that for every 100 men promoted to a managerial position, only 85 women are promoted to a similar role. This stark difference at the first step up the corporate ladder underscores the challenges women face in ascending to leadership positions.

Women of color face the steepest drop-off in representation from entry-level to C-suite positions. As they move up the pipeline, their representation drops by two-thirds. Women represent roughly 1 in 4 C-suite leaders, and women of color just 1 in 16. While progress is being made, representation of BIPOC women lags far behind.

Given the lagging outcomes for BIPOC women, what more is needed?  Where do corporations need to invest?

Call to Action: Fostering a Supportive Ecosystem

Armed with this knowledge, it's imperative that organizations take a strategic and intentional approach rebuilding rungs that are critical to advancement. It underscores the need for targeted interventions at specific stages of the career journey to ensure that talented women are not held back in their pursuit of leadership roles. DEI practices get results, for example, 64% of the best performing companies in terms of women in leadership, and BIPOC women in leadership conduct root cause analysis to identify barriers and bottlenecks for women's career progress compared to only 47% of their counterparts with fewer women in leadership. In particular, tracking promotion rates for women participating in development programs is valuable for identifying barriers and rebuilding the broken rungs on the career ladder.

While mentorship programs are important, even more impactful are sponsors who will champion women. Leadership training, access to flexible work arrangements and childcare, as well as a commitment to creating an inclusive culture are key components of fostering a supportive ecosystem that propels women forward in their careers.

Additionally, research emphasizes the importance of intersectionality – recognizing that women's experiences in the workplace are influenced by a complex interplay of factors such as race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. Tailoring diversity and inclusion initiatives to address these intersectional challenges is crucial for creating a truly equitable workplace.

Moving Forward Together

As we reflect on International Women’s Day, let's engage in open dialogues, share best practices, and collectively work towards creating workplaces that empower all individuals, regardless of gender or background. As women in leadership roles, let's strive to drive the winds of change together, steering our organizations toward a future where diversity isn't just a buzzword but a lived reality.

Wishing you all a workplace journey filled with inclusivity, growth, and shared success.

CMC- Canada Feature Event

Join us on March 13th on What’s up Wednesday where Dr. Konrad, Leigh Harris, Dominique Dennery and I will delve into the complexities of the professional journey for women in Canada, focusing on the challenges and opportunities they faced and harnessed at different stages of their careers. This session will not only provide insights into the broken rung phenomenon but also offer practical strategies to foster inclusivity and equity in the workplace. 


Jennifer Smith, CMC, MPA, Prosci, CES President, Intergage Consulting Group Inc.

Alison M. Konrad, Ph.D., Ivey Business School, Western University

Foot notes / reference material

McKinsey & Company Lean IN report:

Women in the workplace 2023 Insights

Download the report

Lean In report