Women left behind when it comes to promotions

Woman looking up sized clear
Posted: Aug 2021

Companies have promoted fewer women during 2020, erasing years of gains for female comms professionals – and reflecting yet another adverse consequence of the pandemic on working women.

In our 2020 Salary Guide, we reported for the first time ever that more women had received promotions than men. A healthy 26% of women had moved up the ladder compared to 22% of men. Fast forward to our 2021 survey (the data from which was taken over much of the Covid-19 pandemic), and the story is very different. The number of comms professionals being promoted fell across the board, the most dramatic drop of 15% being in the agencies versus a drop of just 3% in in-house companies. But what was more striking was how badly impacted women were when it came to promotions. In 2020, only 15% of female comms professionals were promoted, compared to 19% of men.

Why have women fared so badly?

In what was probably the most turbulent year in recent times, it became increasingly apparent that many companies were reluctant to increase their salary costs in such an uncertain climate, which meant fewer conversations took place about pay increases and promotions. Instead, the landscape became defined by pay freezes, furloughs and redundancies; hardly the time to be talking about advancing your career.

As childcare duties and home-schooling responsibilities fell to more women than men, asking for pay increases and promotions fell off the radar. Many women were instead counting themselves lucky to still be able to do their jobs, albeit with added pressures, stretching them to their limits.

Crisis of confidence?

It is likely that women were left wondering how you demonstrate your worth when you are working remotely. Women tend to be less vocal when it comes to highlighting their achievements. The same applies when they want more flexibility, a pay increase, better benefits or a promotion. Men are much more likely to shout about their successes, say what they want – and get it.

If women feel that they aren’t able to put in 100% at work – and given that women often feel they have to over-perform so that they can ask for that promotion – they’re not going to feel comfortable having that conversation with their line manager.

Without face-to-face impromptu meetings in the workplace, women have lost valuable opportunities to build cohesion, and be sounding boards and mentors for one another. This is the type of personal support women typically rely on to help them advocate for the advancement of their careers.

How can women move forward from here?

As a result of these dynamics, more women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable before Covid-19: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely. Companies risk losing more women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity, and closing the gender pay gap.

Women are often held to higher performance standards than men, and they may be more likely to take the blame for failure, so when the stakes are high, as they are now, senior-level women could face higher criticism and harsher judgement. Not surprisingly, senior-level women are significantly more likely than men at the same level to feel burned out, under pressure to work more, and as though they have to be ‘always on’, especially when working from home.

The crisis represents an opportunity. If companies make significant investments in building a more flexible and empathetic workplace, they can retain the employees most affected by the pandemic and nurture a culture in which women have equal opportunity to achieve their potential over the long term.

This means that flexible working policies are flexible, job shares and four-day weeks become the acceptable norm for both men and women. Employers could also encourage their male employees to take longer parental leave and promote a culture where it’s acceptable for men to take equal responsibility for childcare.

Women also need to speak up more for themselves and have those overdue conversations with their line managers about promotions and pay rises. There is no time like the present to brush up on your negotiation skills.

If you are ready to have a conversation about asking for a pay rise and/or a promotion, check out our tips in this blog post: 6 steps to getting the pay rise you want

To read our full Salary Guide, click here.

The Works Search a search consultancy specialising in PR and corporate communications. We have unrivalled matching abilities and known for finding the top 5% performers in the industry - the ones who deliver and make your reputation great. For more advice or market insights, do get in touch with us on 0207 903 9291 or email

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