Does your Organization Provide Inclusive Career Support?

Career advancement depends a lot on who you know and affinity bias plays an important role. No matter what career path an individual may want to take, there are several more ways your organization can support more inclusive career advancement.

According to research, five key motivators at work include achievement, power, (harmonious) affiliation, security and adventure - and career advancement is a tangible aspect of gaining all of these things. 

But informal career advancement depends a lot on who you know and affinity bias. 70% of jobs are not published publicly and up to 80% of posts are filled through networking. The informal networks, unwritten rules and social dynamics within an organization play a huge role in proliferating inclusion for some in career advancement and creating exclusion and barriers, by default, for others.

That’s why keeping all of your employees engaged and motivated means putting professional development in plain sight at the core of their relationship with you. Opportunity and advancement is a big indicator of how value is conferred in the workplace, and without being both able to see possibility and advance towards it, individuals - especially growth-oriented individuals - will feel stunted, demotivated and devalued. 

Who gets Access and Visibility to Influential Networks

Numbers on career development in the corporate pipeline by race and gender, as two visible factors of difference, paint a very clear picture. Because if you want to know who advancement is currently working for, look at who is actually successful in advancing.  

In the 2022 Women in the Workplace Study, gender and race composition looks like this, moving from entry level to manager to VP to C-Suite:

Corporate pipeline by race and gender (LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, 2022)

Long story short, only white men consistently experience career advancement and grow with seniority. They occupy nearly double as many C-Suite positions as entry level spaces. 

Any other group drops as the pipeline goes up and women of color are strongly filtered out at senior levels. Today, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 87 women are promoted and 82 women of color. 

As Jessica Pliska writes in Forbes, “No college degree can on its own create pathways to the core building blocks of careers, like internships, mentors, first full-time jobs, and career advancement. Networks also confer social capital in the workplace—resources that accrue by virtue of a network of institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance.”

So without having intrinsic access to that social capital, for example black women report having less access to senior leaders. Black women (41%) are much more likely than all women (33%) and men (27%) to have never had a substantive interaction with a senior leader about their work. Black women are far more likely (59%), with an even bigger gap from all women (49%) and men (40%), to have never had an informal interaction with a senior leader. They are less likely to report that their manager supports, gives them opportunities or advocates for them. And we’ve covered how differential access to opportunity drivers such as informal mentorship and sponsorship, for example, then proliferates inequitable career advancement.

Clear Career Development Makes a Difference to Inclusion

When you pour value into your employees, you receive back more value from them. Right now, when it comes to career advancement, that value is (unintentionally) filtered through bias. Most bias in the workplace shows up as affinity bias, or bias in favor of those who are most similar, rather than bias against any group. Without intentional career development and clarity of career paths, you’re not only failing to optimize employee engagement and advance difference. You're also turning away prospects and losing your experienced talent when you could be cultivating leadership from within.

As an industry, tech is a great illustration of where this issue is debilitating (relative to gender) - despite unfulfilled talent demands. 

Career development is a top three motivator for women in tech, but they lack the same opportunities as male peers and 2/3 don’t see a clear path forward once in an organization. Per Ipsos research, only 1/3 of women in tech reported support was in place for promotion and only 1/5 reported processes were in place. In the tech industry, advancement plummets to 52 women promoted to manager for every 100 men. So tech has not only an attraction issue, but a retention issue too. 

To create more equitable advancement,  McKinsey argues that (tech) companies needs more structured career development and have found that those with a more systemic approach to promoting women are creating more diverse, inclusive and better performing workplaces by:

  • Providing more equitable access to training, projects and resources; more structured guidance on career development and a more formalized professional-development process with high visibility opportunities.

  • Implementing a highly structured approach to early promotions (the most critical stage to later career advancement) - including clarity and transparency, well-defined criteria for levels, accountability and clear bars for anticipating promotion, manager check-ins and senior leader overview when things are not going to pace.

  • Connecting women with competent managers, mentors and sponsors early on to catalyze their opportunities and development. Is particularly helpful to connect them with those in the majority group who can become allies and advocates, rather than just pairing them with other women.

These are not steps for only tech companies to take when it comes to creating more equitable career advancement for women, but ideas for how any organization could approach more equitable career development for all underrepresented groups in the leadership pipeline.

Providing Career Support No Matter the Career Path

No matter what career path an individual may want to take, there are several more ways your organization can support more inclusive career advancement: 

  • Train managers to check in frequently one-on-one (whether remote or in the office) and take an active interest in individual career ambitions, identifying milestones for development and supporting what it takes to get there.

  • Provide equitable access to training and learning opportunities for broad skills and leadership skills development, including ensuring that uptake is happening equitably - or investigating the barriers and addressing them.

  • Conduct career mapping that outlines different opportunities and roadmaps based on individual skills and desires. For example, an individual may wish to pursue vertical career progression, a horizontal career path, or a dual career path (for those who want to stay close to the work and not do as much management).

  • Implement formal mentorship and sponsorship programs that ensure these ‘mirror’ and ‘spotlight’ opportunities, often given by those with social capital, are also conferred upon underrepresented talent who too often fall below the visibility radar. 


  • Create rotation programs that provide the opportunity for exposure to multiple positions in related departments to expand individual skill sets, networks and opportunities to shine in different capacities.

  • Design jobs that factor in progression and development from the outset, so each individual understands the possible trajectories of their role and what is required to advance to the next potential levels in transparent, objective criteria which is built into the performance appraisal process. 

  • Make volunteer or paid career coaches, with special training, accessible for individuals to find career support outside of their line manager.

  • Conduct clear succession planning (with DEI principles) for every critical position in your organization. Leverage internal recruiting to boost morale, reduce turnover and be cost effective. 

  • Work with organizations that provide gateways to internships for low-income and underrepresented students. Compensate for time and don’t stick interns in a corner - provide them access to webs of network connections. Leverage “big sibs” to connect with intern program participants as  research has indicated near peer relationships (close in age and experience) can provide valuable resources, connections with others, and skills and insights to further low-income students’ and students of color’s education and employment goals.

  • Support work-life effectiveness with flexibility in the where, why and how of work while clearly defining success benchmarks that allow individuals of differing needs and work approaches (including full-time and part-time parental leave) to advance.

Also, remember to let people know how much their day-to-day work plays into advancing the company mission. Through intentional career development and clarity of career paths, more of your diverse talent will be able to know their value and envision how to achieve their potential with your company.

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