More women than ever have ascended to VP and SVP roles over the past five years, but when it comes to the C-Suite, women are still being left behind — accounting for only 21% of C-level roles, a stubbornly stagnant number. While the so-called “pipeline problem” has improved, why aren’t women being promoted to the top jobs?

Experts say that last rung on the ladder can be the hardest to jump for women and underrepresented groups because the locus of power in organizations — the C-Suite and the executive board — is still largely concentrated in the hands of white men. “That's where the insight, access, and opportunities are: the rules, the sacred cows, the critical business knowledge, and the rooms where things are happening,” says Tara Jaye Frank, Equity Strategist and author of the forthcoming The Waymakers. “The further removed you are from that profile, the further removed you are from that access — and it doesn’t trickle outward.”

But companies can change this trajectory if they commit to it like any other business problem — with intention, accountability, and the commitment to right past wrongs. “This process is not a whole lot different than any root cause problem solving these leaders are accustomed to doing every single day,” says Frank. “But they don't treat it like the business imperative it is, or that they say it is.”

Bias Starts Early

Though the percentage of women in higher level positions has slightly improved, the Women in the Workplace 2021 report by McKinsey & Company in partnership with still points to a persistent “broken rung” for women’s careers, which  refers to the inflection point when individual contributors get promoted into their first management roles. According to a 2021 study titled, “‘Potential’ and the Gender Promotion Gap,” 30,000 management-track employees were analyzed where despite outperforming men, women were 14% less likely to be promoted at the company every year due to being consistently judged as having lower leadership potential than men. This perceived bias of “lack of potential” is attributed to causing 30 to 50% of passed-over opportunities for women.

In 2020, for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 non-white women were promoted, compared to 89 white women. This disparity becomes even more severe when looking at technical roles within fields such as engineering or project management. The ratio decreases to 52 women getting promoted for every 100 men.

The P&L Problem

C-Suite jobs also typically require both deep and wide experience managing P&Ls, which are positions less likely to be held by women. As a result of cultural bias, women are sometimes directed toward customer caretaker roles, instead of higher visibility sales or business development roles.

Leaders also all too often let these opportunities for promotions slip through the cracks in favor of leaning on the easy answer, or the person they perceive to be most likely to get up and running the fastest.

“Companies will say the right things, like ‘we need to diversify our C-Suite, we need to diversify our ranks,'” and they will ask for a slate of diverse candidates, says Frank. “But when those positions become available, the pressure to run the business still causes them to select the person they know best, who's closest to them. And then a week later, they have a conversation about why they make no progress.”

It takes a lot of discipline to truly change a company culture — and unfortunately, it’s still up to the people who have access to the “room where it happens” to speak up. Frank says leaders who’ve worked hard to get to where they are might have an instinct to mind their own business when these conversations are being had. But it’s imperative that they are the ones to redirect the decision makers to the organization’s stated values and expressed priorities, and point out when a goal like gender equity might be falling short.

It could be as simple as asking, “who else?” in conversations when candidates are being considered. “Who else should be on this list that we may not have enough visibility into or not be connected to, but should be?” Frank suggests.

Equity Now, Not Tomorrow

The pay gap in the C-Suite also still lags behind, in large part because women have been historically underpaid throughout their careers.

“If women have not been paid equitably on their path to the C-Suite, they’re going to be way behind,” says Frank. “And companies have a bad habit of saying, ‘that’s too much of a bump’ when assigning pay.” By not taking the aggressive step of increasing pay to reach gender parity — which might be $50,000 or $100,000 — companies are consciously choosing to continue to perpetuate the gap and wealth inequality, even at the highest levels.

Organizations must commit to changing the fundamentals of how women are both paid and promoted, so that the C-Suite can become a better representation of its employees and the people it serves. It’s long past time for leaders to break the glass ceiling — not from the bottom up, but from the top down.

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