What is the "glass ceiling" and why does it exist?

Olga Zeveleva
  · 983
Managing Director at the Institute of Directors. Chartered Marketer with 19 years’ B2B...  · 11 янв 2017

On conceding victory in the 2016 US Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton said to Republican rival Donald Trump: “Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.”

Hillary went on to say: “You can be so proud that, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the President of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.”


If it is now unremarkable for a woman to get to the highest public office in the most powerful nation on earth, will it soon be unremarkable for a woman to run a FTSE 100 organisation? Maybe Hillary has at last cracked the ceiling beyond repair but with just seven women holding the position of CEO in the FTSE 100, it doesn’t feel like it will shatter anytime soon.

"My desire is to live in a society which has moved on from issues such as the glass ceiling, the ‘frozen middle’, the ‘sticky floor’ and any other metaphor which describes inequality."

The glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that prevents certain demographic groups, most typically women, from rising to the top in a hierarchical system. As a 42 year old woman, who works full-time in a senior role – mother and managing director for the Institute of Directors, the first in the organisation’s 113 year history – the topic of gender equality should, and does, matter to me. That said, and I’m incredibly lucky, I don’t think the glass ceiling has restricted me yet.

My desire is to live in a society which has moved on from issues such as the glass ceiling, the ‘frozen middle’, the ‘sticky floor’ and any other metaphor which describes inequality. The goal must be diversity of thought. Anyone in leadership should know that a balanced team is an effective team; group think is the enemy of progress in business and, of course, in society.

So how do we reach this goal? According to the Resolution Foundation, the gender pay gap for women in their twenties is now less than 5%, half what it was for the previous generation. But the pay gap widens sharply after the age of 30, suggesting that having children is the major reason that women are not advancing as rapidly or as far in their careers.


The fact is that women still shoulder the overwhelming majority of childcare responsibilities. The government has changed the law to allow fathers to divide up parental leave, but a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that two-thirds of organisations have had no employees take up the offer of shared leave. I can’t believe there aren’t more fathers who want to be more involved, and I’d encourage companies to make it clear to employees that the option is open to them. I also think that businesses can do more to make senior positions open to mothers as job-shares. Just because a job has always been done by one person full-time doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it.

More than anything though, we need a culture change. Women are not less committed or capable just because they have children. If we are to ensure a steady pipeline of women knocking on that glass ceiling they have to have the same opportunities to reach senior positions as men.

"Perhaps it is disingenuous to suggest that some boards are probably comfortable with the status quo, the ‘old boys’ network’ and some are afraid that change will disrupt the status quo."

On a macro level it is down to societal norms, culture and history. In simple terms, men have, in most societies around the world since ancient times, been the hunter gatherers and the role of women has been to bear children and nurture the family to ensure its survival and evolution. This legacy continues today but is changing, albeit slowly. The binary role of women and men in society changed a long time ago, but culture takes far longer to change.

On a micro level, organisations and individuals have a major part to play in changing culture. Again though, culture takes the will of the senior team or the board of directors and a significant amount of time to evolve. Perhaps it is disingenuous to suggest that some boards are probably comfortable with the status quo, the ‘old boys’ network’ and some are afraid that change will disrupt the status quo.

While this may sound like discriminatory behaviour by those in charge, or even misogyny, it’s very human to rely on what has been successful for you in the past. And the concept of the ‘old’ or ‘all boys network’ is also hardly surprising. Business happens through networking, it just happens that in the past those networks were not diverse and so became closed loops.

"In my experience your choice of partner (always but for this topic, specifically as a woman) has a direct impact on your professional career development. All too many women who have ‘big’ day jobs have equally ‘big’ jobs at home."

In my own experience, my career progression has been down to a combination of factors – my own capability, knowledge, skills and behaviour, but also the choices I have taken. Those choices are apparent not only in my professional life but my personal life.

Professionally I have a wide network. Importantly it is a diverse network. I have taken every opportunity to learn from those more experienced than me (men and women) and I (perhaps unconsciously) acquired a career sponsor (a man) from an early age. This individual was there during a number of seminal moments in my career, vitally my first board appointment (despite pushback from other male board members that I was too young and inexperienced etc.). He also helped me to secure my first managing director role (the first in the company’s 65-plus year history) and he also facilitated the introduction which enabled me to secure my current role. Luck or judgement? Probably a bit of both. He saw something in me that I didn’t, at least not at the time.

In my experience your choice of partner (always but for this topic, specifically as a woman) has a direct impact on your professional career development. All too many women who have ‘big’ day jobs have equally ‘big’ jobs at home. ‘Having it all’ doesn’t happen (at least not without a supportive partner or family) to people like me and therefore to most women. Whilst I hugely admire people like Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg as inspirational leaders, I don’t have the same resources to draw on to enable me to achieve the same level of self-actualisation.


What I do have is a husband who is my equal. We both have ‘big’ jobs and we both take equal responsibility at home, specifically for raising our children. ‘Second shift’, another metaphor, is used to describe women who, having done a full day in paid employment, return home to a second shift in terms of looking after home and family. It is hardly surprising therefore that women who work two shifts are more prone to mental health issues and other related problems, including alcohol dependency.

In summary, at an individual level you can:

  • Seek out a career champion/mentor to support and advise on your progression

  • Develop a wide and diverse network

  • Invest in your continuing professional development

  • Avoid as far as possible the ‘second shift’ and chose a partner who respects your equal status. If you are a working mum and a single parent (I speak from childhood experience of having a single working woman as my mother), suffice it to say you need to work even harder to build your support network

  • Ask for progression at work; there is much to be said for the old adage ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’.

Organisations, however, have a major part to play in breaking the glass ceiling. It is not true (as is sometimes claimed), that there are not enough board-ready women around for companies to choose from, but board appointments are naturally very competitive and training and qualifications can help candidates to get an edge. This process should work two ways of course, and companies and head-hunters should consider ways to make the hiring process more balanced, for example by having name-blind applications in early stages.

Companies must work hard to advance all employees and specifically to address issues of unconscious bias. Senior leaders must demonstrate the culture they wish to see. Training and development plays a crucial role and line managers need to be equipped with a leadership toolkit, which includes the ability to overcome discrimination of any kind.


A little creativity and alternative thinking can provide no end of opportunity for women to progress their careers.

As an optimist, I remain upbeat that the glass ceiling will shatter. After all, culture change tends to be an evolution rather than a revolution. That said, I was also optimistic that Obama’s presidency would signal a post racial era. Depressingly, racial tension in the US continues to be a problem.

Back to whether my experience of hitting the glass ceiling is luck or otherwise – I think it is the next chapter of my career that will really tell. As a younger woman who predominantly worked in the SME sector, where, compared with big business, you are judged more on your performance and results than on your gender, as a woman now in her forties, operating at a bigger and more corporate level, I may yet encounter the ceiling.

In conclusion, it is the steps we take as individuals at a micro level that we can control. Those steps, combined, will lead to strides which will ultimately lead to change at a macro and societal level.

Discover more about business at the Institute of Directors.

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Public Affairs PhD candidate at Florida International University, studying gender and...  · 9 янв 2017
Today, in the 21st century, women are still scarcely represented in top managerial and leadership positions in organizations across all sectors. The "glass-ceiling" is a global phenomenon that refers to workforce disadvantages that women face while advancing into top management positions. It explains a form of workforce segregation where women are barely represented at... Читать далее
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