Gender equality in the workplace has been a burning issue of debate for decades. The sixties advocated such discussion where the belief was ingrained that even though women were becoming more important in the corporate world, men dominated the top prized positions (Zyl & Roodt, 2003). Feminist groups vehemently believe that women are still being oppressed, and gender gap and stereotyping are increasing, and so are their pay-gap and promotion-gap. But recent academic research indicates that there are differences in the pay and position-level of women and men in the labor market, but the difference cannot be attributed to gender stereotyping. Due to the looming confusion in two ideas in the glass ceiling proposition, the question of the ceiling’s validity is always questionable. In this essay, we try to evaluate the glass ceiling in its present context and see if it actually exists today.
What is a glass ceiling? This is one of the most compelling metaphors for demonstrating the gap between men and women in the workplace. By glass ceiling, we mean the invisible artificial barriers that block women from senior executive jobs. This term describes the forces that keep women stuck at the bottom of the economic pyramid. The hypothetical ceiling is an invisible wall that discriminates on the basis of gender in promotions. This implies that women are promoted only to a certain level and not beyond only because they are women (Baxter & Wright, 2000). Clearly, the glass ceiling creates an impermeable block for the vertical movement of women. The ceiling is not in all positions. Though women are permeated to middle-level positions easily, and research shows that there exist a lot of women at this level of the hierarchy, but there are very few women at the positions which hold the decision-making power. Further, gender-stereotyping has shown that women are paid less than men are. But is this the relevant picture? Are women completely ignored and not allowed by their male counterparts to climb up? This is the question that we discuss next.
An International Labor Organization (ILO) report suggests that discrimination is greatest where the most power is exercised (Wirth, 2002). The higher a woman goes in the pyramid, the greater is the gender gap. The report suggests that women hold only 1 to 3 percent of top executive jobs in the largest corporations globally. In 2002, only 8 countries had a woman head of state, and 21 countries have a deputy’s head. Though the participation of women in trade unions globally is around 40 percent, only 1 percent leads the union. This indicates that even though the participation of women in the labor force is not low, the percent grows less as the question of assuming power-related positions come. Thus, even though women have the qualifications and work experience to take on responsibilities at the highest level. But the challenge is the slow pace in achieving a critical mass of women in top jobs with power. The question that arises is why this discrimination is? Why is this discrimination?
Many would say that there exists a glass ceiling that prevents women from assuming leadership roles, but many would beg to differ. They believe that the reason for less number of women is due to their sociological constructs, which makes females more concerned about family life rather than their professional life (USA Today, 2000). The stumbling blocks can often be traced to the way work itself is organized, and the formidable challenges women and men face in trying to reconcile work and family commitments. The result is persistent occupational segregation – men’s jobs and women’s jobs. Even countries with a strong track record for promoting gender equality still have strong degrees of occupational segregation. Compounding the problem, so-called women’s jobs are often assigned a lower market value. This indicates that more women are eager to take up teaching jobs than their male counterparts are. So when compared to an investment banking position, the former will definitely yield less wage. This indicates that women, even though equally competent, choose a profession that historically fetches less pay. Another reason that can be attributed to the difference in wage is that the management job gap and the pay gap are two obvious manifestations of the different ways males and females spend time on work and family matters (Lynch & Post, 1996). Studies show that women, on average, work longer hours than men in nearly every country do. And women continue to perform most unpaid work.
Recent research, on the contrary, demonstrates that there has been a steady increase in the number of women in management positions (Lynch & Post, 1996; Wirth, 2002). They show that there are more women in executive positions, and women who reach the top are younger than their male counterparts (Lynch & Post, 1996). But if the wage gap and gender discrimination are declining, it cannot be denied that they exist (USA Today, 2000; Meyerson & Fletcher, 2000). So if the discrimination is not due to gender bias, then what? What is keeping the glass ceiling intact?
Lynch and Post (1996) believe that it is not the case that women’s work is undervalued than men, but rather, it is women who have historically have shown inclination towards certain fields, and these jobs have been seen as jobs that fetch less pay. For instance, an investment banker will fetch a larger pay package than a teacher. Further, for women, “family remains at the core of what’s important for women, whether they work inside or outside the home” (Lynch & Post, p. 2). So the authors believe that it is “rational self-interest, not discrimination,” which leads to this apparent gender bias against women.
Some behavioral scientists believe that the ceiling is a creation of women themselves (USA Today, 2000). First, women have a problem promoting themselves at work which is an integral part of growing up on the organizational ladder. Further, they have shown their incapability in participating in social networks. Networking is important in top management positions, and being able to get into the executive’s informal social circle is extremely important to get to the top position. According to Behavioral scientist Shannon L. Goodson, though women did not create the glass ceiling, “they help maintain it” (USA Today). So, according to this line of thought, it is the lack of visibility management by women at the workplace that has downgraded their performance at the workplace.
Gender bias, according to some, is the result of ingrained beliefs and culture among men (Meyerson & Fletcher, 2000). Stereotyping has evolved, maybe for men or for women themselves, and what is required is to devise ways to shatter this bias. One reason for this bias is maybe due to such a low number of females in business schools. When men see women from their class joining them in the workforce, they treat them as equals and not subordinate (Lynch & Post, 1996). This is a process of eliminating the bias against women. Another way is to promote “small wins” to promote big wins (Meyerson & Fletcher). How is that possible? For instance, if the work time is made flexible, then it becomes easier for women to contribute an equal amount of time at work, and hence their performance becomes better. Further small wins mold the path for big wins. So one must understand that today it is no longer the gender bias that is holding women back to attain the pinnacle, but the whole structure itself is creating the barrier. This has to be changed, and this is a slow and steady approach.
The glass ceiling is a reality. Even though the magnitude and the nature of the ceiling have changed extremely from the sixties, but the barriers are still existent. The reasons so far discussed in the essay are not individual or cannot be pinpointed as male-led gender bias. But rather, these barriers are proponents of the societal and organizational constructs, culture, and manifest. So this ceiling cannot be removed by mere legislation, but a complete change in structure, beliefs, and culture is required to bring about this change.
Baxter, J., & Wright, E. O. (2000). Glass Ceiling Hypothesis: A Comparative study of United States, Sweden adn Australia. Gender and Society 14(2) , 275-294.
Lynch, M., & Post, K. (1996). What glass ceiling?. Public Interest Issue 124 , 27-36.
Meyerson, D. E., & Fletcher, J. K. (2000). A Modest Manifesto to Shatter the Galss Ceilling. Harvard Business Review, 127-138.
USA Today. (2000). Are Women Responsible for the Glass Ceiling?. USA Today Magazine Vol. 128 Issue 2659 , p. 5.
Wirth, L. (2002). Pay Equity between Women and Men: Myth or Reality? First International Conference (pp. 1-8). Luxembourg: International Labour Office.
Zyl, B. V., & Roodt, G. (2003). FEMALE PERCEPTIONS ON EMPLOYMENT EQUITY: IS THE GLASS CEILING CRACKING? Journal of Human Resource Management 1 (2) , 13-20.