Sheryl Sandberg has a key piece of advice for managers working to fix the broken rung on the corporate ladder for Black women

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Facebook COO and ‘Lean In’ author Sheryl Sandberg says more leaders need to address the barriers that prevent Black women and women of colour from advancing at work. AP Photo/Eric Risberg
  • Companies are promising to hire more Black workers and increase diversity within senior leadership teams, but Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Business Insider these plans will fall flat unless executives address the “broken rung” on the corporate ladder.
  • The “broken rung” refers to the phenomenon where women, especially Black women and women of colour, don’t get promoted as often as men.
  • For every 100 men promoted to management from 2018 to 2019, only 68 Latina women were promoted, and only 58 Black women were, per research by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org.
  • To increase the number of women who get promoted, company leaders need to urge mid-level managers to be aware of how they spend their “hang out” time at work, and make sure they spend it equally between women as well as with men, Sandberg said.
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Many companies are pledging to hire more Black workers and increase diversity within their boardrooms and on their senior leadership teams, as workers call on CEOs to bolster their diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts.

But according to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, these plans are doomed to fall flat, or at least not have the lasting impact leaders are hoping for, if executives don’t address what researchers call the “broken rung” on the corporate ladder. It’s the phenomenon where women, especially Black women and women of colour, get promoted much less often than white men.

“A lot of companies’ programs and a lot of diversity efforts are focused at the top – how do we develop senior leaders? And that’s super-important. But what we also have to focus on is what we call ‘the broken rung,’ that first broken rung from employee to manager,” Sandberg told Business Insider.

For every 100 men who were promoted to management from 2018 to 2019, only 68 Latina women were promoted. That number was even lower for Black women, at 58, per research by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org. The effect of this is clear. There are only four Fortune 500 Black CEOs in America, and all of them are men. This is despite Black women making up 53% of the workforce, according to 2018 government statistics.

“We’re falling behind at that first critical promotion to manager, and that’s where it all starts,” Sandberg said.

Managers are less likely to advocate for Black women chart

A big part of this broken rung boils down to who gets access to senior leadership and who gets access to a mentor or sponsor, someone who advocates on someone’s behalf, Sandberg said.

According to a 2019 survey of more than 68,0000 US workers by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org, only 24% of Black women said they felt they have a sponsor at work, compared to 31% of white women, and 33% of all men.

One way to fix that is to have managers pay close attention to who they communicate with at the office, as well as how they spend their free time socialising.

A whopping 59% of Black women say they have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader, compared to 47% of white women, and 40% of all men surveyed.

That has a big impact.

Many Black women have never had an interaction with a senior leader chart (1)

“Has anyone ever been promoted by someone who hasn’t met with them? No,” Sandberg said. Never happened.”

At Facebook, the COO said she’s very clear with managers that they are to be mindful of who they have informal interactions with, and to make sure they’re not only spending time (or in a remote world, messaging) with the same group of people.

The #MeToo movement, for all its important progress, has had complicated things in this space. Some 60% of men say they’re afraid to have a one on one with a female employee, per a 2019 LeanIn.org survey.

“If you’re not willing to have dinner with women, don’t have dinner with men,” she said. “If you’re not willing to travel with women, don’t travel with men. Senior leaders have to make sure that informal time and hang-out time they give goes equally across the board. You have to be very, very explicit about it.”