What is the dreaded “glass ceiling”? Find out what it is and why it still exists. Then, learn how to shatter the glass ceiling for your female employees.

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What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The term was originally coined by feminist writers in the early 1980s, observing that women in the workforce could see upward mobility but not attain it for themselves. In 1995, the United States formed a Federal Glass Ceiling Commission that better defined the concept for more modern utility: “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.” For the scope of this article, we’ll focus on the original meaning as it relates to gender and further explore the concept as it relates to minorities in another article.

Why Do Glass Ceilings Still Exist?

If we’ve known about the problem for this long, why does it still exist? Well, there are a number of reasons ranging from psychological to governmental, from societal to the way businesses are structured. Let’s take a look at the following factors why this problem persists:

  • Risk Aversion. According to various studies, women are, on the whole, less competitive and more risk-averse than men. This is beneficial for stability, yet leads to fewer attempts at progression up the career ladder and settling for less in order to reach that next level. (For related information, see the Sticky Floor concept). To illustrate this point, the 1995 Commission found that 3-5% of senior management positions in Fortune 500 companies were held by women. Their compensation was lower and they usually held positions outside the traditional executive pipeline, such as HR or research.
  • Education. Women obtain degrees with more frequency than men, yet these degrees are frequently in fields that aren’t high paying. From 1979-2012, full-time pay for women rose 31%, compared to 2% for men over the same time period. With a college education the gap narrows to 33% for women and 22% for men. Even with those large gains over men, women still earn only 77% as their male counterparts across the educational spectrum. The gap increases the higher up the educational spectrum you go, with women earning just 57.9% what men do at the top.
  • Family and Flexibility. Women are still overwhelmingly responsible for child rearing and housekeeping, with many choosing to put their careers on hold or take lesser roles in order to accommodate their home life. This can be a significant barrier when they decide to return to the workforce because they face technological, procedural, industry and social changes, often simultaneously. Interestingly, according to a 1983-2000 GAO study, statistically men received a 2.1% earnings increase for each child, while women suffered a 2.5% decrease in earnings with each child they had. The study was not clear on why men see an increase or why women saw a decrease. However, it is quite possible that the decrease women see each time they increase their family size is related to the amount of unpaid time taken, increase in benefits costs and the feeling of taking a step back in their career to care for their family. Women still sometimes ask HR in confidence and with worry, “Will people think I am not serious about my career if I take two or three months off after having a baby?”

The Negative Effects of Glass Ceilings

Glass ceilings can be incredibly harmful to an organization as well as society as a whole. Here are just a few examples of how Glass ceilings have affected us already.

Economic Stagnation

Per the McKinsey Institute, U.S. GDP could add $4,300,000,000,000 dollars by 2025 if women achieved gender equality. If gender equity existed worldwide, the global GDP could increase by $12,000,000,000,000. Companies that routinely promote women are proven to be more profitable in nearly every aspect.

Diminished Representation

According to UN data from 2020, women comprise 28% of managerial roles and 18% of CEO roles, with 25% representation in national parliaments and 36% in local government. According to a census done by Catalyst, in 2005 women held 14.7% of Fortune 500 board seats. Ten years later that number had only risen to 16.1%. In 2020 board seats held by women or minorities accounted for 38.3%. These numbers show us that though more attention is being paid to the representation of women in positions of leadership, very little has actually changed over the course of many years.

Pay Inequity

In 2020 U.S. women earned just 82 cents for every dollar earned by U.S. men. Equal pay day is observed each year to determine how far into the new year women must work to match the wages earned in the previous year by men. In March 2021, women needed to work nearly a quarter of a year extra to meet the wages of men.

Devaluation of Human Beings

Amid all this discussion of dollars, cents and percentages, don’t forget we are talking about people that are struggling to have their achievements recognized and to grasp opportunities to prove their competence and brilliance.

How Can HR Combat The Glass Ceiling?

What can HR do to help equalize the field? There are many options, some easier to implement than others.

Family-Friendly Policies

Probably the most difficult option is instituting more family-friendly leave policies, whether that means more available leave or more flexibility in working hours. More and more companies are expanding their leave policies, with some companies offering up to 26 weeks for new parents. Per SHRM’s 2016 research, more than half of employers offered telecommuting or flextime. This is of particular utility for women, given their frequent juggling of career and caretaking for multiple generations of family.

Investing in these policies is good for all employees, and it improves the odds of your company being ranked in various “Best Workplaces for Women” types of recognition lists, which can then be leveraged to improve diversity recruiting.

Diversity Recruiting

Bring in new talent at least periodically. Most companies promote from within for continuity and employee satisfaction, but without external candidates, the pool of promotion-worthy candidates is necessarily smaller because the overall pool of candidates inside the company is smaller than outside. Outside influence in the form of new hires can be beneficial as they look at your company and its practices with fresh eyes. They bring new perspectives and voices to discussion too.

Increase Representation

There is power in seeing someone like you succeed at what you want for yourself. Dreams seem a lot more realistic if you don’t have to blaze the trail yourself. Inculcate a culture where women are encouraged to reach for that next level and seen to attain it. Give leaders the challenge to select promising women to mentor or even sponsor to nurture the next generation of leaders in the company.

Ensure opportunities and visibility are distributed fairly. Be mindful of “good intentions,” as managers may attempt to “protect” women from opportunities they assume will be difficult or unappealing to women they manage. Flag and disabuse others of these kinds of assumptions when you hear statements like, “I don’t think she’d want to do all that travel. She has young children and is a single mom.”

Career Pathing

Establish a roadmap that leads to management and executive positions. This can often help women who are less assertive by giving them a plan to follow or benchmarks against which to measure their progress. Clear demarcations for competency levels and experiences needed for promotion can help women understand when is the right time to ask for a promotion and understand what work needs to be accomplished before they can earn a promotion.

Get Serious About Bias

Bias exists both consciously and unconsciously when it comes to hiring, raises and promotions. The United States military is a leader with regard to eliminating bias in the hiring and promotion process, with all branches of the armed forces relying on standardized assessments for all personnel. Institute “blind hiring” in which resumes are stripped of names, graduation dates and other information that can clue an interview into gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, etc. that may influence hiring without merit.

Asking new hires about their salary history is frequently a contributor to lower pay for women. In the same way, prompting for explanation of gaps in work history can discourage female applicants. Be aware of state or local laws that may prohibit asking about current or prior wages for this reason. Ensure you are paying for the role you are trying to fill and for the new hire’s competency, experience and education rather than trying to value the person or get them for the smallest salary they will agree to.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Glass Ceilings

The term is similar in concept to the glass ceiling and was coined in 2005 by Jane Hyun in her book Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asian Americans. It describes the particular career challenges faced by Asian women in the corporate world. Without intent to diminish the struggles of Asian Americans, the term could be seen as pejorative, so use it with caution.
Yes. Only 38.8% of Fortune 500 board positions are filled by women or minorities. In the U.S. in 2020, women earned 82 cents on the dollar compared to men in the same roles.

Angela Livingston, SHRM-CP, MBA has nearly a decade of HR experience in high regulated, high tech companies that are Federal Contractors and supported people in other states. She’s worked for an international company with ~20K US employees that did a lot of immigration work, and she’s worked for a company with ~3500 US employees that doesn’t support work visas. One constant is that she’s always working with people empathetically with an eye on integrity.

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