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Looking for a promotion? Start with these proven strategies

For every 100 men elevated to management, only 85 women are promoted. Here’s how companies and employees can fix the gender inequality.
Businessman sitting in office smiling during a video call
Luis Alvarez / Getty Images file

Recent studies have found that women, especially women of color, are less likely to be promoted than men. To overcome these gaps, dubbed the “broken rung,” experts say that both managers and women employees will have to be more proactive.

For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women overall - 58 Black women and 71 Latinas - were promoted in 2020, according to McKinsey. These grim statistics are compounded by the fact that millions of women were pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic.

“Morning Joe” co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski recently discussed promotion inequality as part of the ongoing "LEVELING UP" series with Kat Cole, former COO and president of Focus Brands, along with Dia Simms, CEO of Lobos 1707 and Alex Carter, professor at Columbia Law School and author of “Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.”

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“There's already been a pay gap between men and women, especially women of color. Let's add to that, the opportunity to get promotions,” said Brzezinski during the discussion.

Here are six ways that employees and companies can combat the problem.

1. For employees: Ask questions.

Employees often don’t understand how promotions work in their company. Carter strongly suggested that they ask pointed questions right off the bat.

“Early on in your first job, you want answers to three important questions: what, when and who. What are the metrics by which promotion is decided? When does that window of opportunity open and who do you need to recruit to your side to get you there?” said Carter.

She continued: “Sit down with your manager early on. Ask her how promotions are decided, what you need to hit to get there, when you can start working with her to make that case, and then look at other people at work.”

2. For managers: Recognize that female leaders are good for business.

Research shows that recruiting and promoting women is beneficial for the bottom line. According to an S&P Global study, companies with female CFOs generated $1.8 trillion more than their sector average, and firms with female CEOs saw more company value appreciation than those run by men.

“The ‘why’ is also important. The intentionality is critical. It still continues to be treated as if it's a charitable effort,” said Simms. “It can't be said often enough that women in leadership are just very strictly good for business.”

3. For employees: Be ready.

Carter suggested that women be prepared for a promotion, even if it’s not imminent.

“We can't just wait for somebody to tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘you're ready.’ The negotiation for the promotion doesn't happen in the performance review. It happens those other 364 days a year,” said Carter.

Cole shared that, throughout her career, most of her promotions came suddenly when someone left or got promoted.

“Be ready,” said Cole. “I was viewed as ready internally in the organization. When someone else changed, it became my opportunity.”

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4. For managers: Recruit, nurture and train female managerial talent.

Managers have to be proactive in order to give women equal access to management roles. First, according to Cole, companies must assess their own policies and managerial roster.

“Companies have the chance to look at who's leading projects and initiatives, and to do the work to give women an equal opportunity to be visible as leaders of others,” Cole said.

Companies can then actively recruit diverse women through universities and other strategic partners, said Simms. They may also have to provide training.

“Sometimes, you have to go across industries and do the extra work to train where there may be a missing technical gap, but there is no lack of aptitude,” Simms said.

5. For employees: Lean on your allies.

Employees should find allies who support, sponsor and uplift them, said Carter. These allies may not always be the most obvious choices.

“You want to find your allies. But the best allies aren't always up the chain,” Carter said. “They may be colleagues, assistants, support people. They may have great knowledge and be really influential. If you learn from everyone you meet, you'll stand out as a leader.”

6. For both: Build confidence.

Women often suffer from a lack of confidence that makes them hesitant to discuss promotions, said Brzezinski.

“A lot of research shows that women talk themselves out of applying or asking for promotions, especially if they don't feel prepared,” Brzezinski said.

Female employees are encouraged to own their value and build up the confidence to start the conversation around promotions. Simms explained how this strategy enabled her to climb the ladder.

“I've been unabashed about the math of it and just reinforcing over and over again: this is what my value is,” Simms said. “...I was very clear about saying: ‘here are my contributions and precise value’...If you're doing it well, you are likely contributing to the bottom line.”

But it often takes work on the company’s part to make women feel safe to have that confidence, Cole said.

“I had so many one-on-one conversations with women who were talking themselves out of the role,” Cole said. “It took work on behalf of me as a leader to have a regular one-on-ones, to build their confidence and to assure them that mistakes and failure are a common part of the process.”