Ten years into her banking career, Karlyn Percil-Mercieca realized she had taken on extra responsibilities over the years and decided to push for more, when a promotion came up.
“All of a sudden, I wasn’t qualified anymore. It was like you’re qualified until you’re not,” said Percil-Mercieca, a Toronto woman originally from St. Lucia.
She stayed in the industry for roughly another decade, thinking “If I work harder, if I apply myself more, something will change,” but eventually microaggressions at the office and frustrations with how women weren’t supported pushed her to leave and start her own consultancy business.
“When you step away, you realize you’re actually fighting a systemic gender barrier, a structural barrier that is so ingrained in our corporate workplace culture. That is not always easy to notice or to navigate,” she said.
Percil-Mercieca’s experience is reflected in a new study showing women are still under-represented throughout the talent pipeline and there remains a “broken rung” that makes being promoted difficult.
The study released by data consulting firm McKinsey and Co. on Tuesday shows that although women are one per cent away from achieving gender parity in entry-level positions, progress remains stagnant at more senior levels.
Women held 49 per cent of entry-level positions last year, up from 45 per cent in 2017. At the manager and senior manager levels, that falls to 37 and 35 per cent, respectively.
Companies appear to be hiring a similar number of men and women for junior positions, but women’s representation drops by 12 percentage points when management positions are involved — the largest decline from one level to the next throughout the pipeline. Between the manager level and the C-suite, the representation of women falls by another seven percentage points, with women holding 30 per cent of C-suite roles.
“The road is long, and we’re very far away from a level playing field. Very, very far,” said report author Sandrine Devillard.
She compares the lack of progression women face to a funnel where women and men are equally hired, but where women face added difficulties as they try to advance to senior levels.
Some have attributed the lack of advancement to fewer women being hired, but Devillard has seen hiring levels draw even without a corresponding improvement in advancement.
The troubles women face in climbing the corporate ladder are usually attributed to a cluster of issues including a lack of mentorship, the motherhood penalty — pay, job and career repercussions women face when having children — and corporate cultures they compare to a boys’ club, where promotions are handed out to people with similar backgrounds and interests as those making hiring decisions.
Rising through corporate ranks is even more difficult for women of colour, who are less likely than men and white women to be promoted from entry to manager level.
McKinsey found women of colour represent 17 per cent of entry-level employees and drop to six per cent in the C-suite. This gap is also seen earlier in the pipeline, with the largest decline occurring between the entry level and manager level.
“For people of colour, in particular women, it is broken at each stage of the process,” said Devillard.
“They are hanging by a thread and people of colour, in particular women, face a lot of hardship, a lot of microaggression.”
Her study is based on data McKinsey collected between May and August of 2021 from 423 U.S. and Canadian employers and a survey of more than 65,000 people from 88 companies.
The company further examined Canadian data that isolated 5,317 survey responses from Canadian workers and other data from 51 companies in the country collectively employing more than one million people across 10 industries.
With the study not covering the last year of the pandemic, Devillard fears the current situation women face may be even worse because many women faced layoffs or left the workforce to care for kids completing remote schooling.
Their progression may also have worsened if companies abandoned equity efforts during the crisis, she said.
“It’s a bit like a souffle. You must uphold the perimeters, but the moment you believe that you’ve achieved it, you open the door of the oven, and then it crumbles,” she said.
“This is what happened with the pandemic … so that’s why I’m saying I’m not so optimistic for the future.”
Solmaz Shahalizadeh, who recently left her role as Shopify Inc.’s head of data and co-founded a woman-focused investment fund called Backbone Angels, said promoting women is “quite easy,” and the companies that struggle with this “really haven’t looked in the right places.”
“There’s not a shortage of women with skills,” she said.
“It’s just making sure they get the right support and at the right time.”
She tells women who don’t feel their workplace supports their career aspirations to push for what they’re worth, even if it means leaving a company they feel loyal to.
“During the pandemic, I coached a really brilliant lady leader who was being held back on the rung by another woman, a leader who happened to be a white woman. She was so frustrated because she really wanted to move ahead,” she said.
“We came up with a coaching strategy, she applied for another role, she left and she sold her skills in a different light.”
But there is also an onus on companies rather than individuals if change is the goal.
Percil-Mercieca thinks they should take the “broken rung” more seriously and fix it by listening to and empowering their employees.
“I know I won’t see everything fixed in my lifetime, but I would like to see more demonstrated accountability,” Percil-Mercieca said.
“The quicker we do that, the sooner we can get to a place where we can truly create a better world.”