Breaking the glass ceiling

Talent Acquisition

By Janette Marx
July 30, 2018

August 10, 2023

0 min read

What is the 'glass ceiling' and how can we break it?

The term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined by Marilyn Loden, an American writer and management consultant, in 1978 during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations. 

The glass ceiling refers to the invisible barrier preventing women and minorities from ascending to leadership roles. The barrier can exist through both subtle and direct discrimination.

It can be represented by reduced opportunities on projects after maternity breaks or the unconscious bias that leads to executives promoting employees most like themselves. 

Forty years on and businesses worldwide have made great strides when it comes to gender parity.

Yet the glass ceiling metaphor continues to symbolise an enduring barrier faced by women in the workplace – recently Recruiter reported that only 6% of the Fortune 500 companies are run by women.

So how can we break through the glass ceiling?

Start by cleaning the sticky floor


To tackle the glass ceiling, we first need to understand the phenomenon of the ‘sticky floor’.

This phrase typically refers to women in low paying, low mobility jobs.

The stickiness alludes to them being stuck at the bottom of the career ladder while their male counterparts can progress more freely.

When I entered the recruitment industry in 1994, I worked full-time as a recruiter for Olsten Staffing Services while completing my undergraduate degree.

And while I was driven, I was fortunate to work alongside a progressive team and had opportunities to grow and develop, which isn’t always the case.

Encouraging a cultural shift

In order to accelerate women through the ranks, a cultural shift is needed and no company alone will turn the tide. Significant groundwork has been laid by many already. However, if we can get even more schools, universities and organisations working as one to tackle the challenge I’m confident we’ll make a noticeable difference.

For example, getting companies involved with organisations like the Greater Houston Women’s Chamber of Commerce (GHWCC) builds networks with schools and gives young women strong, successful, female role models to aspire to.

Mentorship should not be limited to females either, our male counterparts can play an essential role in advocating for gender parity.

Next, we need to think about how to encourage and attract more women to pursue management qualifications.

While pursuing my MBA, only 14% of my cohort were women. Progress since then has been slow

The Financial Times reports that the number of women in MBA programs globally has only risen by 20% in 20 years. This is interesting since it’s been shown in studies that backgrounds in business, finance and the engineering and technology sectors are launchpads for female CEOS.

So how can the industry work together with educational institutions to attract and encourage more women to get their MBA or other industry qualifications that will accelerate their growth to top leadership?

It’s about helping women juggle the pressures of work/life/school demands

During my MBA, I found that one of those three elements always had to give to prioritise another.

As employers, the more flexible we are with schedules, the more help we give women to juggle all the work, life and school balls in the air without dropping one.

That will go some way to giving women more confidence around taking the leap to undertake an MBA, which will ultimately help the employer long-term.

Melting the frozen middle


Another obstacle in breaking the glass ceiling is the ‘frozen middle’, which describes women’s career progress often halting in middle management positions.

Sponsorship is one solution to this problem. Sponsors can actively help advance careers – using their influence and capital to advocate for women.

Women need this senior sponsorship – especially in male-dominated industries like energy – so they are offered the same visibility in the organisation.

The Harvard Business Review found that women with sponsors are 22% more likely to ask for stretch assignments to push them further than unsponsored peers. In particular, strong, female role models in senior positions can play a huge role in helping women navigate the challenges of more senior roles.

This is something I’m particularly passionate about. Throughout my career, I’ve pioneered mentorship programs and personally mentored and sponsored employees to succeed. As a board member of the GHWCC, I am committed to empowering women to reach their career goals.

Avoiding falling off the glass cliff


This sponsorship, mentoring and guidance will be especially important when women do make it into the C-suite and boardroom to avoid falling off the glass cliff. 

The term ‘glass cliff’, coined by academics Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam back in 2005, is the phenomenon of women making it to the boardroom but finding themselves in precarious leadership positions.

It notes that women often break through the glass ceiling when businesses are in periods of risk and uncertainty – and are therefore left with the option to accept an unstable ‘glass cliff’ position or resign and ‘fail’.

This sometimes plays into the female stereotypes of ‘softer’ leaders – when people skills are needed to turn companies around.

But organisations need to continue supporting female leaders once they’ve reached the top and beyond these periods of uncertainty, so their careers and businesses can thrive. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner characterised by stereotypes.

We can’t be content with breaking the glass ceiling – we need to make our mark.

Accelerate women, accelerate business


Breaking the glass ceiling and making your mark is much more than a box-checking exercise for diversity.

More women in senior roles equals more profitable businesses. 

Ernst and Young notes that an organisation made up of 30% of female leaders could add up to six percentage points to its net margin.

So, if we can accelerate the uptake of women in our industries, particularly in senior positions, we can be assured that it’s going to have a positive effect.

If companies worldwide can put the sponsorship and progression of women at the top of their agendas, the hope is that in the next 40 years we can smash the glass ceiling once and for all.

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