How Coaching Helps Repair the ‘Broken Rung’ For Front-line Women Leaders

Conversations about gender inequality and the ‘broken rung’ are common, but absent immediate, impactful, and lasting corrective action to hiring, retention, and promotion policies that advance front-line women leaders, these discussions are basically just talk. Leadership development programs that offer coaching in front-line supervisory roles are imperative to repair the ‘broken rung.’

How broken is the 'broken rung'?

Significant disparities are evident in the low number of women in leadership roles, including middle-management ranks, despite women making up nearly half of the overall workforce. A 2021 Harvard Business Review article “Achieving Gender Balance at All Levels of Your Company” shared these stats:

  • 38% of managers are women 
  • 33% are directors
  • 28% are senior vice presidents
  • 21% are C-suite executives


Harvard Business Review argues that these statistics are primarily driven by gender disparities in promotion rates versus gender differences in hiring or retention.

There is minimal front-line supervisory training available for women

Consider, front-line supervisors account for roughly 60% of company management ranks that directly supervise about 80% of the workforce. These essential leaders encounter immense pressure to manage incredibly high turnover and address talent shortages, yet, more men are promoted than women. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2022 Women in the Workplace report, “for every 100 men who are promoted from entry-level roles to manager positions, only 87 women are promoted, and only 82 women of color are promoted.” Further exacerbating the situation, front-line supervisors often receive just 20% to 30% of the organization’s focus where training is concerned, and it’s often separate from leadership development.

The 'broken rung' increases organizational risk

When women are overlooked for promotions, paid less than their male counterparts, locked into lower level career paths, or are not adequately prepared for new leadership roles, it produces the ‘broken rung.’ Another way to describe this multi-faced talent challenge is gender discrimination, which exposes organizations to enormous consequences, including a widening leadership gap that reduces operational performance, and brand and reputation damage, regardless of organization size, industry, or maturity. 

In 2021, there were more than 18,000 filed charges of sex discrimination, according the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Further, nearly half of the agency’s filed amicus briefs in 2022 were for cases related to gender bias and discrimination. More than $150 million was paid in 2021 through administrative enforcement of gender discrimination, and hundreds of millions more through litigation.

How does leadership coaching help to fix the broken rung?

Coaching for front-line supervisors holds the key to addressing the ‘broken rung.’ Leadership development is critical for succession planning and talent retention, especially for younger women who need support to elevate their capabilities and close the leadership gap. Providing women with leadership coaching can remove the leadership development effectiveness gap almost entirely. Leadership coaching is a proven development strategy, and it should be a component of high-potential (HiPo) programs created to prepare newly promoted front-line supervisors to lead effectively. 

Create an environment conducive to leading with competence and empathy

Earlier we mentioned gender discrimination. To create gender balance, coaching — which should obviously include but not necessarily be built specifically for women — for front-line leaders should focus on leading with competence and empathy. A leader’s environment shapes their ambitions, opportunities, and experiences, according to the 2022 MIT Sloan Management Review article “How Empathy and Competence Promote a Diverse Leadership Culture.” Therefore, HR and senior leaders should identify “ways their organizations can create environments that equalize opportunities for women” rather than hinder productivity and create dissatisfaction.

Most teams now work virtually, or in a hybrid manner, which may complicate the role for new women leaders. According to the aforementioned MIT Sloan piece, when leaders can successfully exhibit high competence and empathy, it empowers their teams and conveys equal opportunities for advancement. Coaching can help leaders develop the capabilities they need to put themselves in other people’s shoes and offer empathy and understanding. This is important for men and women, especially as a means to reduce unconscious bias, and encourage leaders to naturally and organically mentor and support their direct reports. Through leadership coaching both genders can become better equipped to understand others’ intentions and desired outcomes, and express their thoughts, opinions, and emotions authentically and respectfully.

Supplying women front-line supervisors with a leadership coach increases their capabilities and confidence. It makes them more efficacious as leaders and assists in repairing the ‘broken rung’ that so many women encounter. This helps to build a stronger leadership pipeline for the future and close the gender leadership gap.


Moira Alexander is a freelancer for Sounding Board, a tech-enabled leadership coaching company designed to bridge the leadership gap. She is also the founder of Lead-Her-Ship Group, a digital content creation and marketing services company, and  a certified project management and IT professional.

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