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  1. Blog
  2. Advancement

How to Make the Job Promotion Process Equitable & Why Women Fall Behind

Guarantee fairness and transparency

Businesspeople standing on the side of the road
Photo courtesy of Sora Shimazaki

Discrimination directly—and negatively—impacts opportunities for career advancement.

Of the 9,000 technologists that took part in Dice’s Equality in Tech report, writes senior editor Nick Kolakowski, “47 percent of women respondents said they’ve witnessed discrimination with leadership opportunities, 45 percent with promotional opportunities, and 32 percent with project opportunities—more than double each respective response from male respondents.”

And it’s not just the tech industry that practices rampant inequality in promotion processes.

Read more: How to Ask for a Promotion: What the Experts Say

What is a promotion and how do employees get promoted?

A raise and a promotion aren’t the same thing, although salary increases are typical when an employee is promoted. In and of itself, a promotion is a step up the hierarchical corporate ladder, an advancement in rank or position at the company.

A promotion is like a reward, typically for performance over time. So, if you’ve been receiving great feedback and reviews from your manager, you might expect a promotion; however, you do need the skills required to perform that new role. Job experience and performance alone may not be enough to be promoted if your skills are lacking. This is why training and development can be so beneficial: In addition to making you more efficient and better at your current role, additional skills can help you realize your career goals.

Read more: How I Got 3 Promotions in 5 Years (And You Can Too)

Inequalities in promotions

Not everyone who should be promoted is. This is especially true when it comes to women and people of color when compared to white men. 

According to a McKinsey report, “for every 100 men promoted to manager [in 2019], only 85 women were promoted—and this gap was even larger for some women: only 58 Black women and 71 Latinas were promoted. As a result, women remained significantly outnumbered in entry-level management at the beginning of 2020—they held just 38 percent of manager-level positions, while men held 62 percent.

Read more: Occupational Sorting: Does Job Choice Affect the Gender Pay Gap?

We asked Jalie Cohen, Group SVP HR Americas at leading talent advisory and solutions company Adecco Group, about the discrepancy. 

She tells InHerSight that “to address inequalities in promotions, we must be honest that it is a real issue and ask the questions behind why these gaps exist. For some organizations, there may be inequities in the promotion process. For others, it may be that there’s not enough women in the pipeline to promote. Even the most transparent and fair promotion process won’t work if an organization doesn’t have a solid bench of female talent.”

There’s an asterisk to that. According to advocacy group LeanIn, even when women are promoted and have high-paying careers, they are generally paid less than men. As an example, women managers make 21 percent less than men in the same job, and working mothers are paid 30 percent less than working fathers.

Read more: This is What Pregnancy Discrimination Looks Like

The inequity and discrimination is everywhere, across industries and jobs, in companies of every size, even those giants that publicly affirm their racial equity stance, like Amazon. But it was Amazon that was sued by Charlotte Newman, a Black woman and senior manager at the company’s cloud-computing division in Washington, D.C., for allegedly paying her less than her white peers and using “racial stereotypes to justify denying her opportunities for promotion.”

In fact, Amazon’s own published information about its workforce demographic data confirms that “Black, Latino, and female employees are underrepresented in the best-paid jobs,” writes Katherine Anne Long, Seattle Times business reporter, with Black and Latino workers overrepresented in working lower-paid jobs, such as in warehouses.

Read more: How to Meet Gender Representation Goals, According to a Company That’s Done It

How to make the promotion process more transparent and fair

Organizations need to start at the very beginning to make the promotion process equitable. “Changing hiring practices so that organizations pair with institutions that are known for training workers of color is a first step,” writes Adia Harvey Wingfield, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Next, go to the source. Get information about the challenges and obstacles your employees face by asking them, says Wingfield, and make sure to include underrepresented groups in your data collection. Then, get managers involved in developing solutions, and change those aspects of company culture that allow sexual harassment.

By auditing their company and getting that kind of specific information, leaders can stop good employees from leaving as well as fix unfair practices.

Read more: Are You on the ‘Mommy Track’? How to Know & What to Do About It

“Workplaces have to understand why women are leaving, and why there’s promotional inequity, and sometimes plain data doesn’t give you the full picture,” Cohen tells InHerSight. “Not every woman is a mother. Some women leave to take care of a parent. Some leave for fertility support. Some leave simply because they don’t have women leaders at their organization to look up to.”

Ariane Hegewisch and Valerie Lacarte at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research recommend paying employees to upgrade their skills, especially as technology continues to change. Learning takes time, they write, being “time outside of paid work that women often do not have because of their care commitments. Paid time to upgrade skills and pursue lifelong learning can reduce inequality in access to new employment opportunities.”

Read more: DEI Strategy: Building an Efficient, Effective & Supportive Mentorship Program

Other steps companies can immediately implement to make the promotion process transparent include:

  • Communicate clearly how promotions work.

  • The company CEO and leadership must be committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. (This is called buy-in.)

  • There must be accountability for harassment, regardless of an employee's seniority, role, or performance.

  • Mandate bias awareness training for all employees, such as LeanIn’s free digital program.

  • Hold moderated forums for conversations about race.

  • Actively work toward a diverse senior leadership.

  • Establish a mentorship program.

Read more: ‘You Have to See It to Be It’: Why Women Role Models Are Key to Gender Equality

Mentorship is extremely important to an employee’s progression in the workplace. To help women of color climb the ladder, says Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at ownership management platform Carta, they need the support of someone at least two levels above them in an organization's hierarchy.

"This individual will use their political capital, their social capital. They will have skin in the game and they will help me advance my career," she explains. "We need more women of color to be sponsored so that they can get into the C-suite and board rooms."

Read more: Better Sponsorship: 6 Times to Speak Her Name

About our source

Jalie Cohen is Group SVP HR Americas at leading talent advisory and solutions company Adecco Group and founding member of Chief,  a private network built to drive more women into positions of power and keep them there. Chief is the only organization specifically designed for senior women leaders to strengthen their leadership journey, cross-pollinate ideas across industries, and effect change from the top down.

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