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Empowering Women in Business

The Glass Ceiling: How women are blocked from getting to the top

Recent headlines tell the story that the popular media wants us to believe about women in the executive suite: "Women Gain Numbers, Respect in Board Rooms," "New Career Trend: She Goes, He Follows," "Women Entrepreneurs Have Come a Long Way,"Women are Liberating a Citadel of Male Power," and "You've Come a Long Way, Baby."

Clever as the headlines are, these depictions of women's success in the corporate world are misleading. Increasingly, women are bumping into a "glass ceiling." Ann Morrison describes the problem: the glass ceiling is a barrier "so subtle that it is transparent, yet so strong that it prevents women from moving up the corporate hierarchy." From their vantage point on the corporate ladder, women can see the high-level corporate positions but are kept from "reaching the top" (Breaking the Glass Ceiling).

According to Morrison and her colleagues, the glass ceiling "is not simply a barrier for an individual, based on the person's inability to handle a higher-level job. Rather, the glass ceiling applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women.'

What causes the "glass ceiling?" Here is what women executives think.

Job Segregation Runs Rampant

Just as the overall labor market remains sharply segregated by sex, women executives are concentrated into certain types of jobs - mostly staff and support jobs - that offer little opportunity for getting to the top. A 1986 Wall Street Journal survey found "The highest ranking women in most industries are in non-operating areas such as personnel, public relations, or, occasionally, finance specialties that seldom lead to the most powerful top-management posts." Women are locked out of jobs in the "business mainstream," the route taken by CEOs and presidents. But even when women can get a line job, it is not likely to be "in a crucial part of the business" or the type of job that can "mark them as leaders."

Old-Boy Network Still Strong

According to one executive recruiter, the biggest barrier to women in top management levels is the "bunch of guys sitting together around a table" making all the decisions. In short, when deciding who to promote into management, male corporate leaders tend to select people as much like themselves as possible - so it is no surprise that women are frequently not even considered at promotion time. Instead, the men at the top look to former colleagues and old school ties; in both areas, women have been virtually absent.

Women executives are frequently excluded from social activities and often describe the "clubbiness" among the men that exists at the top. The corporate executive suites are "the ultimate boys' clubs."

Even on a more formal level, women report there are "certain kinds of meetings" they don't get invited to because they are not seen as policy makers. Corporate women don't travel on business as frequently as men, according to surveys by Korn/Ferry Intemational (1982) and Wall Street Joumal/Gallup (1984). Studies confirm these differences in status and the different treatment of women. One study found that among executives at the same level, men "managed greater numbers of people, had more freedom to hire and fire, and had more direct control of the company's assets" than women (Harlan and Weiss).

Sex Discrimination Is Pervasive

In the Wall Street Journal/Gallup survey, women managers were asked what they consider to be the most serious obstacle in their business careers. Only 3% cited "family responsibilities," but half named reasons related to their gender, including: "male chauvinism, attitudes toward a female boss, slow advancement for women, and the simple fact of being a woman." In the survey by Korn/Ferry International, executive women were asked to name the greatest obstacle they had to overcome to achieve success; the most frequent response was simply "being a woman" (40%). In a recent poll of 12,000 workers by the Los Angeles Times, two-thirds reported sex discrimination; 60% saw signs of racism.

More than 80% of the executive women in the Wall Street Journal/Gallup study said they believe there are disadvantages to being a woman in the business world. Men, they say, "don't take them seriously." In the same survey, 61% of the women executives reported having been mistaken for a secretary at a business meeting; 25% said they had been thwarted on their way up the ladder by male attitudes toward women. A significant majority - 70% - believed they are paid less than men of equal ability.

Sexual Harassment Is Widespread

Sexual harassment remains a serious problem for women in the managerial ranks. In a 1988 survey of Fortune 500 executives by Working Woman magazine, 90% of large corporations reported sexual harassment complaints by women employees. The survey found that "more than a third of the companies had been sued by victims, a quarter had been sued repeatedly." But, according to the same study, only 20% of offenders lose their jobs; 4 in 5 are merely reprimanded.

Sexual harassment "puts a woman in her place," so a corporate environment that tolerates sexual harassment intimidates and demoralizes women executives. Many women hesitate to speak out, fearing it will jeopardize their careers.

Enforcement of Anti-Discrimination Laws Is Lax

The Reagan and Bush Administrations have gutted the federal government's commitment to affirmative action. As a result, equality has dropped off the corporate agenda. A 1983 survey of 800 business leaders by Sirota & Alpen Associates found that out of 25 human resource priorities, affirmative action for women and minorities ranked 23rd.

With an increasingly conservative majority, the Supreme Court has issued a series of seven decisions on equal employment opportunity laws that make it harder for women and minorities to successfully wage discrimination lawsuits. Collectively, these decisions represent a major shift in employment laws put in place during the past 25 years. According to the Civil Rights Monitor, the Court!s latest decisions "make it harder for women and minorities to prove discrimination, make it easier for those opposed to civil rights consent decrees to challenge them, narrow the coverage of civil rights statutes, and limit the award of attorney's fees" (Civil Rights Monitor).

Finally, men in corporate management tend not to perceive discrimination as a real problem, thereby making it virtually impossible to implement effective remedies. According to an exhaustive study by John P. Fernandez, white men consistently ranked problems encountered by women executives as insignificant compared to how women ranked them. So without constant pressure from the outside and strong legal remedies, the very real problems of race and sex discrimination in the executive suite may never be adequately addressed.