Glass ceiling: myth or fact?

“When you look at talent, look for a track record of success, not just the most recent success.”

— Cathie Black, Hearst

MENTION of the glass ceiling elicits different responses depending on who you are talking to. Some people deny its existence, citing the few women in leadership positions as proof that women can make it if they persevere.
However the facts on the ground paint a different picture.
Coined in the 1970’s, the phrase “glass ceiling” refers to the “unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements” according to a US Department of Labour definition.
I am yet to meet anyone who would admit to keeping women down “regardless of their qualifications or achievements” and but as results will show this type of discrimination operates at an almost subconscious level.
The fact that there are more men than women in senior and executive management positions is well documented.
The 2010 World Economic Forum Corporate Gender Gap Report ( which covered 600 companies in 16 different industries found that “female employees tend to be concentrated in entry or middle level positions”.
Out of the 20 developed and developing countries which formed the sample only Norway broke this trend with about 40 percent representation of women at the top due to legislative requirements.
Results from a smaller sample of the largest companies found that only five percent had female CEOs.
The report also confirms what can be observed around us.
Women mainly work in service industries, in this case, finance and insurance services which had 60 percent.
There were fewer women in mining (18 percent), agriculture (21 percent) and engineering and construction (21 percent).
So while it’s safe to say the glass ceiling does exist, can the same consensus be reached with regard to the reasons for its existence?
The respondents in the survey were given 16 criteria which they were asked to rank in terms of how they prevent women from accessing leadership positions.
I should mention here that of the heads of human resources who answered the questions in this survey, 54 percent were female and 46 percent were male which is not surprising as women tend to dominate in human resources.
Whether this has a bearing on the following results is a matter of conjecture.
The top three reasons they put forward for the glass ceiling were the general norms and cultural practices in a country, a masculine/patriarchal corporate culture and a lack of role models.
That these answers came from mostly developed countries where I would have thought cultural practices are less entrenched shows the depth of the problem across the world.
Factors such as inadequate labour laws, parental leave and benefits, childcare facilities and lack of monitoring of participation of women ranked the lowest.
This is where the issue gets complicated — it appears that all sixteen factors contribute in some way to the glass ceiling, just in different measure depending on which country is responding.
This, in my view, presents a dilemma in terms of what exactly needs to be tackled in order to break the glass ceiling.
But we have to start somewhere and action taken on any of the sixteen criteria is a step in the right direction as opposed to admitting that the problem is insurmountable.
Some issues such as childcare and lack of flexible working solutions are tangible and could be addressed with the right budget and will to do so.
But factors such as societal and corporate culture are intangible and extremely difficult to change.
Although the report does a great job in showing the position of women in corporates, I feel a lot more could have been done in recommending actions for addressing the situation.
So, in conclusion, while women are making some progress in the corporate world today, one can say the glass ceiling is definitely cracking but has not yet shattered.
It’s easy to blame the male dominated corporate world for the situation career women find themselves in but are there things that career women are doing or not doing which contribute to this situation?
I will explore this angle next week because those women who have managed to break through the glass ceiling must be doing something right.

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