Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Feb 23 2024 | Perspectives
A group of women laughing together at work.

The steps taken to reach equality in the workplace over the years have been massive. Notably, in the US, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 forbade employers from paying women less than men for the same job and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin.

However, not all changes can be made at a legislative level - an attitude change is also needed, which takes longer to achieve. The workplace of 2024 is much safer and more tolerant than ever before, but we still have a long way to go in shattering the glass ceiling completely.

So, what is the glass ceiling?

The term ‘glass ceiling’ refers to a symbolic barrier that prevents people from advancing in their profession. This barrier is unacknowledged and invisible, making it harder for those affected to address it. Overwhelmingly, the glass ceiling prevents women and marginalised people from reaching higher positions – this affects minority women living in white-majority countries the most.

The term was coined by Marilyn Loden in 1978, during a speech about how women were often thwarted in the workplace, and it has rung true ever since. However, there have been some significant steps already made. Women now run 10.4% of Fortune 500 companies, with the first black woman joining the list in 2009, the first Latina woman in 2017, and the first openly gay woman in 2018, according to Qualtrics. Is your company keeping up with this positive trajectory?

Smashing the glass ceiling in the workplace

To smash that glass ceiling, changes need to be made from the top of your organisation - and it starts with education. You’ll find that one of the biggest issues surrounding the glass ceiling is that many people won't acknowledge that it exists, or they’ll protest that it was broken years ago - this could be for several reasons, including a fear that it will affect their own professional position.

Do away with phrases like ‘that’s the way it’s always been’ and ‘that’s just how things are done here’ and strive to educate your workforce on what real change looks like. This could be done by investing in diversity and inclusion coaching, which is ideal for opening eyes to everyday injustices and helping naysayers realise the power of an organization that champions equality.

The best way to visualise and understand the glass ceiling problem is to examine your own organisation. Is there much diversity within the top positions? Is dangerous or prejudiced language brushed off as office banter? Are there limited mentoring opportunities, making it harder for lower-level employees to progress? Can you identify instances of workplace bias within your actions and those of your leaders or managers?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, your organisation urgently needs to address how it can eliminate discrimination and provide opportunities for everyone. Here are a few places you can start:

  1. Implement a Diversity and Inclusion program with a committee that champions education and change. This could involve regular educational talks, celebrating a wider range of religious and cultural festivals, and planning inclusive team socials.

  2. Consider blind recruitment as a defence against any cognitive bias during the hiring process. This practice involves removing a candidate's personal information so that it doesn’t influence a hiring decision. Removing this bias gives candidates a better chance to succeed regardless of their sexual orientation, race, disability or ethnicity.

  3. Create space for employees to raise their concerns and have their voices heard. This process must be anonymous so that respondents feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences.

  4. Implement mentoring programs and regular check-ups across the organization. Every employee should be getting suitable praise and constructive feedback on their performance regularly. This will help instil the confidence needed to thrive and progress.

Bonus: what is the glass cliff?

The ‘glass cliff’ metaphor refers to when women or other marginalized people are allowed into higher positions but are essentially set up to fail. For example, being used as a scapegoat during a company crisis.

This phenomenon is caused by pervasive attitudes towards gender and leadership. If a historically male-led company is doing well then there is no perceived need to change. However, if that same company suddenly begins underperforming, a transition to female leadership is often preferred. Harvard Business Review conducted a study among students and found that when a company is in crisis, they prefer stereotypically female traits in leadership to turn the tide. Still, when a company is performing well, stereotypically male traits in leadership are preferred. The study found that the leadership history and ingrained stereotypes both contribute to the exacerbation of the glass cliff.

As diversity becomes the norm in top leadership roles, biases—both conscious and unconscious—will evolve into acceptance. This shift will help diminish the likelihood of women and individuals from minority backgrounds being unfairly placed up against a glass cliff.

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