The glass ceiling

It’s been over twenty years since the term “glass ceiling” entered into the mainstream psyche. Originally, it was meant to be a metaphor for the invisible but often-present barrier that prevents women from entering into senior board positions at parity with men. More recently, the term has also been used to describe how visible minorities of both genders face barriers in trying to reach the corner office. That is, specific groups are promoted so far up the proverbial corporate ladder, say to middle management, and then bam — a “do not enter” sign is posted. At least that’s the theory. For now, let’s talk about women. 
If it seems a little old fashioned, with about the same relevance as a Rubik’s cube, think again.

Sure, women are making a strong showing in the academic corridors. According to Statistics Canada, women accounted for 58 per cent of enrolment at the undergraduate level, 55 per cent at the master’s level and were only slightly outnumbered by men at the doctorate level in Canadian universities (2009-10 academic year).

But somehow en route from the classroom to the corporate suite, the numbers don’t bear out.

Research indicates that fewer than 17 per cent of working women are corporate officers within Financial Post 500 (FP500) companies, only 5.6 per cent are among the FP500 top earners and only 19 of the FP500 companies are headed by women. Lower numbers than we would expect to see given the simple fact that women represent 50 per cent of the working population.

The glass ceiling is a metaphor, but its effects are very real. Women are still not moving into senior positions at a pace commensurate with their education and skills. Ingrained attitudes about gender roles, societal and self-perceptions about ambition and personal choices may partially explain the discrepancy.

Consider this: In the Harvard Business Review article “Do Women Lack Ambition?” (April 2004), Anna Fels writes that women commonly defer recognition and routinely underestimate their abilities, chalking up success and accomplishments to luck and serendipity. Of the women Fels interviewed she writes, “Ambition necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement or the manipulative use of others for one’s own end.” None of them would admit to being ambitious.

As for the external lens, consider the Heidi/Howard Roizen study conducted by Columbia Business School professor, Frank Flynn. In exploring how two leaders were perceived, identical in everything but name (hence, Howard and Heidi), the study demonstrated that success and likeability were positively associated for men and negatively associated for women. That is, change the name from Howard to Heidi and “she” wasn’t as likeable or such a great boss as Howard.
Meanwhile, back on the home front, the stay-at-home dad is a 21st century possibility, but not a probability. Women, by and large, still take on much of the family responsibilities whether they are working or not. Add to this a lack of progressive systemic programs aggressively levelling the corporate landscape and voila, continued pileup near the top.

Women, themselves, must continue to develop the ability to leverage and maximize values, demonstrate skills and then take some credit. Believe in yourself. After all, recent studies clearly indicate gender diversity can actually increase a company’s performance.

But for the moment, the numbers tell the story — the glass ceiling still exists. The issue is complex, but women can break through with determination and strategy— not by thinking like men but thinking like a leader, period.

Here’s how you can think like a leader:

Choose a career that makes you passionate and fuels your interest. Breaking through the glass ceiling is much easier when you believe in what you’re doing.
Get a mentor (or reverse mentor). Listen grasshopper — admit there is much to learn. Whether male or female, we all need teachers on the way up. Learn from those you aspire to be. Mentors have a big picture focus that you may not have developed. And once you’ve been in the workforce for some time, consider getting a reverse mentor (someone younger than you who can keep you current on technological advances).

Be a mentor. Women have to help other women. Support peers and be a role model for other women; prop them up when possible, not because they are women, because they are good at what they do.

Speaking of being good at what you do — work hard and be prepared to “show what you know.” Add value and speak up. The general perception that good leaders possess qualities typically thought of as “male” needs to be busted. Indeed, women can make effective decisions, demonstrate clear vision and implement plans assertively. Be one of those women.

Network. Join organizations that give you opportunities to demonstrate your leadership and abilities. Volunteer time to develop new contacts.
Stay focused on your career development, even during turbulent times or periods of change. One key influence on your career path is your own perception of attainable success.

And, whatever you do, don’t stop climbing — broken ladder, glass ceiling or not, keep knocking. Harness your ability to make decisions effectively, learn how to take risks and bust gender bias statements daily. Refuse to buy into stereotypes or subscribe to them in any way.

Maybe twenty years from now, we will finally be able to say we took a big ol’ sledgehammer to that stubborn glass and took it out with a few well-intentioned and targeted final swings . . . but we’re not quite there yet.

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