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  3. A thorough exploration of the glass ceiling
A thorough exploration of the glass ceiling

A thorough exploration of the glass ceiling

  • What is the glass ceiling?
  • How to recognize the signs of the glass ceiling
  • How does the glass ceiling affect organizations?
  • How does the glass ceiling affect employees?
  • How do you break the glass ceiling?
  • Key takeaways

Are you constantly overlooked for promotion despite your skill level, hard work, and qualifications? You may be stuck under the glass ceiling. This article thoroughly explores its definition, signs to look out for, and strategies to overcome it.

You get a new exciting job and you have high hopes of climbing the corporate ladder, but over time, you begin to feel stagnant. You’ve pursued higher level roles within your organization, but there is always an explanation for why you’re “just not ready” for more responsibility. 

If this has happened to you, it’s not your imagination. There may be an invisible, systemic barrier hindering you from advancing to higher levels of leadership. This phenomenon is widely known as the glass ceiling. Although commonly associated with women, the glass ceiling can affect anyone met with discriminatory practices impeding their upward mobility.

Let’s dive into details about this phenomenon, including: 

  • What the glass ceiling is

  • How to identify signs of the glass ceiling’s existence

  • Its effects on organizations and employees

  • How to break the glass ceiling 

What is the glass ceiling?

The glass ceiling occurs as a result of unconscious bias, discrimination, and systemic barriers against people with differing ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, social class, religion, and other factors with no direct impact on job performance.

Considered a subtle form of discrimination, this is a serious issue that continues to plague corporate America. Although laws were established to protect affected workers, the glass ceiling still exists and remains a point of contention for millions of working professionals.  

How did the glass ceiling emerge?

A significant contributing factor to the glass ceiling effect can be tied to the historical dominance of white males in the corporate hierarchy. Throughout the industrialization era and into the 20th century, the glass ceiling became evident as women and minorities faced systemic barriers preventing their ascent to decision-making positions.

Despite efforts driven by the Civil Rights Movement, which focused on addressing gender-based discrimination, racial inequalities, and religious discrimination, the glass ceiling persisted, particularly for individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. 

Statistical Insight

Today, only 19 Fortune 500 firms are led by people of color, and only 21 of these companies are led by women. According to recent data, almost 75% of Fortune 500 boards are mainly comprised of white men.

Those in leadership typically deny that glass ceilings exist because they haven’t experienced it firsthand or fear that their positions of power will be threatened if they acknowledge this phenomenon. Therefore, it continues to permeate across the organization with little to no resolution due to the elusive and nebulous nature of its existence.

How to recognize the signs of the glass ceiling

The glass ceiling may show up differently in various organizations. The challenge with identifying the glass ceiling is leaders tend to justify a lack of advancement with subjective criteria that can be hard to prove. If you pay close attention to the intricacies of a workplace that upholds the glass ceiling, you may uncover some clear indicators including:

  • Absence of diversity in leadership positions in the organization

  • Lack of accountability for addressing diversity and inclusion goals

  • Being passed over for promotional opportunities despite being qualified

  • Experiencing microaggressions or being made to feel incompetent

  • Pay disparities among underrepresented groups

  • A culture that tolerates discriminatory behavior or fails to address complaints related to inequalities

Identifying these signs may mean conducting a comprehensive assessment of your organization's practices and policies to determine whether there are truly systemic barriers preventing certain individuals or groups from advancing in their careers.

How does the glass ceiling affect organizations?

Companies with a lack of diversity in leadership may fail to grasp the impact of the glass ceiling on the organization, as they may not have firsthand experience with the advantages that come with a diverse workforce. Nevertheless, a lack of diversity has been proven to limit a company’s success. For instance, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, it was found that companies with above-average total diversity had 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins, on average.

The glass ceiling limits the diversity of leadership, hindering the inclusion of different perspectives at the decision-making level. This can lead to reduced innovation and creativity across the organization. When employees perceive unequal opportunities for advancement, morale suffers, leading to dissatisfaction and higher turnover rates. This also opens the door to liabilities in the form of lawsuits by employees who feel victimized by the glass ceiling.

How does the glass ceiling affect employees?

Although the company faces certain drawbacks, victims of the glass ceiling are negatively impacted the most. Several professional, psychological, and emotional toils accompany the glass ceiling.

A highly qualified individual’s career trajectory can be stifled if they find themselves hitting the glass ceiling. It can be emotionally taxing to endure the realization that their career progression has plateaued, despite their outstanding skills and accomplishments.

Over time, it can diminish an individual's confidence and morale, impacting their job satisfaction and overall well-being. They may also experience stress and burnout, as they struggle to overcome systemic barriers, which can lead to harboring feelings of resentment toward the leadership team and organization.

How do you break the glass ceiling?

Breaking the glass ceiling is no easy feat. Decades of discrimination, bias, and disparities are woven into the fabric of the corporate world. However, if both employers and employees take a firm stand in fighting against the glass ceiling and creating a truly equal-opportunity workplace, we can tackle the systemic challenges that perpetuate inequality and forge a path toward a more inclusive and diverse professional landscape.

What can employers do?

Company culture starts from the top. It’s up to senior leadership to recognize the issues, implement robust diversity and inclusion initiatives, and enforce those plans to create an equitable workplace. Regular diversity audits are essential to assess and rectify disparities in leadership roles. Companies can establish mentorship programs to support the career development of underrepresented employees and promote transparency in policies concerning promotions and career growth to uncover hidden biases. Additionally, offering training programs, particularly for those in leadership roles can address unconscious bias and ensure fair evaluations. 

What can employees do?

Once employees begin advocating for themselves by holding employers accountable to standards and qualifications for advancement, they can start to challenge stereotypes and biases within their organization. By showcasing the quantifiable value they bring in discussions about moving into higher-level roles, employees will make it increasingly challenging for employers to justify denying promotions.

Being assertive about their career goals, actively seeking feedback, and communicating their aspirations to superiors can also aid in fighting the glass ceiling. If you choose to confront an organization about the glass ceiling, be prepared to be met with resistance and leverage data, metrics, and statistics versus emotions to make your case.  

Breaking the glass ceiling requires a collective effort from both individuals and organizations. It involves challenging systemic biases, fostering inclusive cultures, and providing equal opportunities for all employees to reach their full potential. Although we have made some progress, there is still a lot of work to do. 

Need help preparing for a promotion, learn more about our Pathway to Promotion service which provides expert insights and practical resources to help you navigate the promotion process.

Key takeaways

  1. The glass ceiling refers to an invisible barrier that prevents certain individuals, often women and minorities, from advancing into positions of influence, despite their qualifications and achievements.

  2. The glass ceiling can diminish an employee's confidence and morale, impacting their job satisfaction and overall well-being.

  3. Eliminating the glass ceiling demands a joint endeavor involving both individuals and organizations.

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