Much has changed in the past century when it comes to women’s role in the labor market and corporate world. Once relegated to the domestic realm where the chief preoccupations are housekeeping and childrearing, women today comprise 47% of the American labor force. But despite this achievement, few women ever reach positions of power and leadership. For instance, only 37 of Fortune 500 companies are headed by female CEOs in 2020, and this number is regarded as an all-time high. Meanwhile, only 40% of managers in the United States are women, and the numbers are far lower in other countries including in Europe. As the numbers suggest, it is not enough for one to be intelligent, skilled, competent, and ambitious; one has to be fortunate enough to possess both X and Y chromosomes. This begs the question why, despite all the progress that has been made in the past century, women cannot seem to break the glass ceiling as they ascend the corporate ladder. The answer lies in the established power structure that allows men to rise to positions of power while systematically preventing women from reaching higher—a power structure founded on centuries-old myth of women’s inferiority and perpetuated by persistent gender roles.
The lack of representation of women in positions of leadership can be attributed to events in relatively recent history, namely the rise of capitalism in the 18th century as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. When the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe, vast industries were set up primarily by men from the elite classes. After all, it was men who had the legal right to manage finances. Women, equally privileged in their lifestyles as they were, were not expected to engage in business and indeed were not accorded the same freedom in matters relating to finance. Such industries benefitted single women from the working classes. The mechanization of production led to a surge in the demand for cheap labor, thus giving women from the lower classes opportunities for employment. Women from the countryside migrated into the urban centers, resulting in a newly industrialized society where capital and the means of production were held by men while women comprised the labor force. The emergence of capitalism, however, also gave birth to a new class of elite male industrialists—a sort of exclusive club for wealthy men. Because this group of wealthy male capitalists grew up in a society where women were considered as inferior to men, they developed the belief that women were simply not cut out for leadership roles. The predominance of men among capitalistic industrialists, which was actually an inheritance from a long history of patriarchy that granted men power over matters of business and finance, became their own justification of men’s superiority over women in matters of leadership.
The legacy of such a belief can be seen in the perpetuation of the myth of female inferiority. Even today, many believe that women simply do not have what it takes to be leaders. The notion that women and men occupy opposite ends of the spectrum is expressed in the dichotomy by which they are described. Men are rational and ruthless while women are emotional and compassionate; men pursue their ambition while women seek harmony; men are calculating while women are impulsive; men are strong-willed and women are soft. Such generalizations portray women as unfit to lead, and such biases have very real results for women who seek to reach the top rungs of the corporate ladder.
Attributing the existence of the glass ceiling to the rise of capitalism and industrialization, however, is an incomplete story. The events that transpired since the 18th century served only to establish a modern power structure that prevents women from achieving power. The roots of this power structure can be traced further back in history, perhaps even as far as prehistoric times. Disparity in power between men and women is believed to have emerged alongside civilization. It is believed that men and women labored equally among hunter-gatherer societies. But the invention of agriculture created a more stratified society with more discrete gender roles. Women started to engage more with domestic tasks while men engaged in manual labor. Such division of labor became widespread and eventually became the basis of the belief that women belong at home. These newly formed gender roles, of course, were reinforced throughout history. Religion in particular became a prime authority that codified the separation of men’s and women’s spheres. The notion of women’s inferiority and their duty to subject themselves to men’s authority is extensively documented in sacred scriptures including the Gospels. Philosophy also perpetuated this idea, a prime example of which is the writing of Aristotle. In Asia, the writings of Confucius implied the inferiority of women to men. The biases against women, therefore, were already deeply-entrenched when capitalism and industrialization allowed for the rise of men to positions of power in the business sector.
While long-standing biases against women and more recent history greatly contributed to preventing women today from climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, there are also factors that stop women from achieving leadership roles. One reason is the fact that women go on maternity leaves. Women who build families inevitably go on maternity leave, which often lasts a few months to half a year. In some cases, women take sabbaticals to focus on their children’s most crucial period of growth and then return after years of being away. Leaving, of course, means compromising professional growth. The moment a woman goes on maternity leave, she becomes prone to being taken over by other employees. In many cases, the company decides to promote men instead of women even if the latter are equally or more competent since men are less likely to take paternity leave. Ultimately, taking maternity leave sets women back and contributes to the lack of representation of women in positions of senior leadership.
Another factor that prevents women from breaking through the glass ceiling is the fact that women are relatively new when it comes to corporate leadership and this newness often leads to burnout. It is only in the past few decades that women began to reach the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. However, the prevailing culture in the corporate world still heavily favors men. Women who climb the ladder often face formidable challenges: most of their competitors are men, these competitors already have the advantage of established networks mainly composed of men, and these competitors already enjoy the prevailing belief that men make better leaders than women. As a result, women need to work far harder to prove their worth. In many cases, women who seek professional advancement suffer from frustration and fatigue. The climb becomes such a constant battle that many women just decide to drop out of the race, which eventually contributes to fewer women ever becoming senior leaders like CEOs.
This situation is aggravated by the fact that women have for decades been confined to certain roles. When women began to enter the labor force in substantial numbers, they were directed towards certain sectors believed to be suitable to their perceived limited capacities. For example, women largely worked on manufacturing, clerical, and caregiving roles. This can still be observed today since certain jobs are perceived as feminine. Examples of these include nurses, secretaries, and midwives. It was not until the 20th century when women were widely allowed to become doctors, lawyers, and business owners, let alone acquire the full education to work in these fields.
The division of labor also serves as an obstacle that prevents women from progressing in their careers. As discussed earlier, labor has been gendered for many years. Whereas men were the breadwinners who went out daily, women were confined to their homes performing their traditional duties. Though women eventually gained society’s approval, they are still expected to perform their domestic responsibilities. Women still bear the brunt of taking chores such as cleaning, cooking, and childrearing. Women who work regular hours come home to an entirely different set of work waiting for them. Indeed, this phenomenon of women juggling employment and domestic chores has come to be known as “double duty” or “second shift.” Women who fail to fulfill these two roles endure stigma. Social norms dictate that women are mothers and wives first and employees second. Men, on the other hand, do not face these social pressures. Women working so many hours at the workplace and at home frequently experience fatigue. On top of this, they lose the chance to engage in other activities that could help them in their climb towards the top.
With a power structure that prevents women from occupying more positions of leadership, it comes as a question as to how the playing field can be levelled. The answer is as complicated as the problem. Nevertheless, addressing this problem can perhaps begin with acknowledging that women should be seen as equal to men. At this point it is entirely clear that female leaders can be as good as their male counterparts or in some cases even perform better. If anything, women’s ability to succeed despite all the challenges they face and obstacles thrown their way has proven their competence. As every person is equal before the law, women must be granted protection from discrimination.
During the past centuries, women have enjoyed great socioeconomic progress. Whereas women were once confined to the domestic sphere, women today have the freedom to receive a full education, find employment, and become leaders in various industries. But despite all these successes, the glass ceiling remains a barrier to women everywhere. Tracing the roots of this injustice reveals deeply-entrenched bias against women that existed throughout history. This bias, in turn, was reinforced by the formation of a capitalist class dominated by men during the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary factors also play a role in perpetuating this problem, from the fact that women’s careers are compromised by maternity leaves to the social pressures that force women to juggle career and family life. In the end, these issues prevent women from achieving positions of senior leadership. This is evidenced by the fact that there are far fewer women CEOs and managers than men. Resolving this issue proves to be a tricky puzzle, but this can be achieved by way of acknowledging the contributions of women and encouraging a cultural shift that will dispel myths of women’s inferiority once and for all. Women deserve to be on equal footing with men in the corporate sphere. It is the only natural conclusion for a group that has proven their abilities time and again.