A ‘glass ceiling’ is a metaphorical invisible barrier that prevents a given demographic from rising the ranks in their workplace.
There is a glass ceiling that is preventing women from reaching senior positions in the workplace, and it’s time to dismantle it. Women have made great strides towards equality; more women than ever are in the workforce. However, that’s not to say our work is done yet. Women continue to struggle to gain a foothold in the workplace, and even when they do, they struggle to advance due to bias and outdated frameworks. There are also levels to this, with women of colour facing extra barriers in the form of racial discrimination and stereotypes.
The Gender Equality Barrier
While many women are working, not many are in senior positions. In Australia, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) found that in the 2020–21 year, women only made up 19.2% of CEOs and 32.5% of key management positions. This was in stark contrast to the WGEA dataset, which was made up of 51% women. With women unable to see themselves in senior positions, they’re more likely to leave the company. Barriers start low.
In the United States, Mckinsey & Company found in a study of over 40,000 employees (and 333 organisations), that for every 100 men, only 87 white women and 82 women of colour are promoted to a first-level manager. This is further supported by a study of a North American retail chain, which found that while women made up 56% of entry-level workers, as you went further up the ladder, it reduced to 48% (department managers), 35% (store managers), and 14% (district managers). In that study, they found that women were perceived to have less potential than men. Specifically, they identified that although women would score highly in performance—in fact, they would score 7.3% more likely than men—their potential rating would be 5.8% lower.
The way to increase gender diversity in leadership is to offer clear pathways. Pathways should be outlined and defined by the HR department. To protect the pathways from bias, metrics and standardised measurements are key. As demonstrated in the earlier mentioned study, a big barrier to women’s progress was the perception of “potential”.
This perception comes from stereotypes like men being more confident, assertive, and rational, compared to women being more sensitive, risk-averse, and quiet. These types of stereotypes have long plagued women in the workforce (and life in general) and can severely hamper a woman’s ability to rise in the ranks.
Leadership pathways can be in the form of training, specialised programs (like job-rotation), or even mentorships. Mentorships are particularly a great option for women, and in a survey done by Women of Colour Australia, they were identified as a “key” need for future development. It’s important that these opportunities are available and accessible to all. These opportunities should also be offered during work hours—this is especially crucial.
Job rotations are great especially for entry and mid-management workers. In these programs, employees are exposed to more developmental opportunities. This system benefits everyone, and for women and minorities especially, this type of training provides exposure and a greater sense of capability. As employees aren’t constrained by stereotypes, they are free to explore atypical career paths. The benefits are clear in the case study, US West: Women of Color Project, which found that of the 39 participants who had completed the program, 100% received developmental opportunities and 83% experienced one or more promotional opportunities.
Accessibility is also important. Clearly defined and mapped out pathways should be accessible and understood by all. To increase participation, you must have these pathways in writing and located somewhere convenient on the company’s intranet. Be sure to tailor these trainings to your company. Aimless trainings that offer no direction aren’t going to be of any help to anyone. Your company should also arrange for HR or managers to check in on the employee’s progress and provide guidance to them.
The Flexibility Barrier
A huge barrier is ease of access. While flexible working has certainly increased during the pandemic, there’s still a lingering stigma that employees aren’t working if you can’t see them (in the office) or they aren’t working as hard. This is evident in data from the Office for National Statistics in the UK, where they found that between 2012 and 2017, employees who worked from home were on average, 37.7% less likely to receive a bonus compared to those who never worked home.
Those who may take on part-time positions or even take leave are also disadvantaged. Part-timers are more than 70% less likely to receive a high performance rating and are 50% less likely to be promoted. For those who take leave, they not only tend to receive less pay (than their colleagues), but they are also less likely to be promoted and less likely to receive high performance ratings – which persist after an employee returns. This can severely hamper parents, especially when it comes to taking leave for childbearing and to do other caregiver obligations.
Offering flexible working is a simple solution that has many benefits that will positively impact your entire workforce. Flexible working doesn’t necessarily mean remote or hybrid working. It could be flexible hours; if someone wants to start an hour early, they can end an hour early, for example. Or if they need to go to appointments during the week, they’re free to do so and don’t have to use precious annual or sick leave.
Flexibility is so easily concentrated on remote or hybrid work, but there’s so much more to it. It’s the absence of feeling queasy about asking the manager if you can go to an appointment at 4 instead of at lunch time, arriving late, and not having the ol’ “Good afternoon” passive aggressiveness. If you haven’t done so already, you should write up a flexible working policy and make sure that it’s respected and supported by all management. For promotions again you should keep the frame on data, and keep perceptions of leave taken and flexible work undertaken out of the equation. Also, being on parental leave should not be a hindrance for those to receive promotions. Everyone who is qualified for the role should be considered.
The Sexism Barrier
A study by VicHealth reported that 75% of women have experienced unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour at work. What’s equally disturbing is that in instances of sexual harassment, 40% are witnessed by at least one other person, and 69% of those do not intervene. The huge problem with sexism in the workplace is that it’s fuelled by inaction and acceptance, which would explain why only one in five people formally report these instances. For those that do, 17% were labelled a troublemaker, 18% were ostracised by their colleagues, and 17% resigned.
Unconscious gender bias is another issue, arguably more prevalent. This is harder to recognise because it’s not intentional. Unconscious bias can make employees feel alienated and stifle ideas and innovation in the workplace. It can also, as demonstrated in the earlier North American retail case study, prevent women from advancing in their careers.
Sexual harassment trainings and unconscious bias programs are necessary. They also need to be done regularly. Unconscious bias is a massive problem across companies, and it’s very, very hard to remedy. People find it difficult not to act on unconscious bias because it is inherent and, like culture, is an internal “just is” that is not acknowledged. Regular training is essential, and it’s important to make sure that the training is about bringing people together and not dividing them.
Building a strong speak-up culture is crucial to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. A speak-up culture is one where employees feel safe to call out inappropriate behaviour without fear of reprimand or retaliation. This can be fostered through open feedback channels where employers and management are open to criticism and willing to change. Your policies and procedures also need to outline how to report inappropriate behaviour and what the process involves. Reporters should also be rewarded. If they’re rewarded, then others will feel comfortable reporting should they see or experience something inappropriate at work.
Women of Colour
It’s also crucial to understand that gender bias isn’t equal. Women of colour (WOC) are more likely to experience discrimination and have fewer opportunities than their white female peers. Equity is just as important as equality. The Women of Colour Australia organisation found in their 2021 survey, that 60% of WOC were discriminated against and that 57% of them felt that they had faced challenges in the workplace due to their identity as a WOC. WOC face a number of extra barriers than white women, and it’s crucial for companies to understand that and to ensure that all women are supported.
Women have made great strides in the workplace but we’re still not there yet. We need to dismantle the glass barriers that keep women from advancing and while it can’t be done overnight, it certainly can be done quicker than it is doing now.