Business Research: Glass Ceiling and Corporate Ladder
The corporate ladder is a competitive environment where top-performing individuals race to get to higher positions. This metaphorical ladder, on the outside, allows anyone to rise through the ranks and achieve high positions. On the inside, however, the environment around the ladder can make it difficult for certain individuals to progress leading to the perception of a glass ceiling within an organization. This is especially true for women in the corporate field as they experience harsher requirements than their male counterparts. The glass ceiling exists in organizations because of male-dominated structures that place tougher requirements on women.
Glass Ceiling Definition
The term “glass ceiling” appeared in the late 20th century during the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York. Marilyn Loden, a management consultant, coined the phrase to describe the ignored issues that women experience in the workplace (Loden, 2017). The term became more popular after a 1986 Wall Street Journal article used it in a discussion about corporate hierarchy and the barriers that women face in climbing the corporate ladder. As individuals continue to use the term, it eventually applied to other minorities aside from women (Kagan, 2022). Still, most individuals associate the “glass ceiling” term with the barriers that women face in corporate environments.
Individuals can define the term as an invisible barrier that prevents individuals from advancing on the corporate ladder. The barriers come from unwritten biases which can make it difficult to assess whether a glass ceiling exists in an organization (Kagan, 2022). This can prevent or dissuade an individual from complaining about corporate discrimination since there are no written policies. This puts individuals from organizations with glass ceilings in a difficult position as they cannot address their situation. This also leads to less diversity in the workplace as women and minorities may develop higher turnover rates.
Glass Ceiling Commission
The term’s popularity raised government concern regarding women’s experiences in the labor market. To address the concern, the U.S. government formed the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991. The department became responsible for studying the barriers and factors that cause the glass ceiling phenomenon (Glass Ceiling Commission, n.d.). The commission confirmed that women, as well as minorities, experience workplace bias regarding promotions (cited in Kagan, 2022). Both their coworkers and employers perceive women and minorities as less qualified for high positions, proving that a glass ceiling is present in many organizations.
Causes of Glass Ceiling
There are many possible causes for the existence of a glass ceiling in an organization. Elacqua et al. (2009) identified interpersonal and situational factors that affect women’s career advancement and their reported perception of a glass ceiling. Interpersonal factors refer to aspects that can make women feel alienated in the workplace. These aspects can also put women in positions where they are at a disadvantage when competing for high positions. Situational factors, on the other hand, refer to the organizational-level treatment of female employees.
1. Interpersonal Factors
The first interpersonal factor is the existence of a mentor figure in the workplace. According to Ibarra et al. (2010), the lack of a mentor can be detrimental to a woman’s career. Mentors allow individuals to access more opportunities in the workplace and improve their visibility at higher levels. Employees with mentors, or mentor-like figures, are less likely to feel alienated in an organization (Elacqua et al., 2009). This can improve their performance and develop a positive perception of the workplace. The lack of mentoring, especially for women, can deny them access to opportunities–creating the perception of a glass ceiling.
The second interpersonal factor is the senior male-dominated social network in an organization. Since most organizations’ high position-holders are senior males, the social network within an organization becomes male-dominated. Various studies suggest that these types of organizations place women in lower positions that would make it difficult to find opportunities for promotion (cited in Babic & Hansez, 2021). The biases that many senior men have against women play an integral role in the existence of a glass ceiling. Additionally, the United Nations Development Programme conducted a 2020 study that revealed that 90 percent of men and women are biased against women while 50 percent of men and women perceive men as better political leaders. These statistics suggest that both men and women are responsible for the existence of the glass ceiling.
The last interpersonal factor is the friendly relationships between employees and company decision-makers. As mentioned earlier, males occupy most decision-making positions which creates a male-dominated social network. According to Babic & Hansez (2021), individuals of the same sex are likely to form friendships. This promotes the formation of friendships among male employees and male decision-makers. This friendship can improve the visibility of male employees, increasing their chances of getting promotions. Women employees may find it difficult to form friendships with the male company decision-makers because of a lack of common interests. This further lowers the visibility of women in the workplace, creating the glass ceiling.
2. Situational Factors
The first situational factor is the harsher job performance-based criteria that women may experience in the workplace. According to Cohen et al. (2018), women in the accounting field receive different treatment during performance evaluations compared to males. Similarly, Yagüe-Perales et al. (2021) found in their study that women need to work harder to reach managerial positions compared to male coworkers. These studies suggest that many organizations have different promotion criteria for men and women. Since the promotion criteria for males are less severe, they are likely to receive a promotion. On the other hand, women who make greater efforts to receive promotions may feel discriminated against, thus leading to the existence of a glass ceiling.
The second situational factor is when a woman holds a managerial position for a long time but cannot get another promotion. According to Elacqua et al. (2009), women tend to have low visibility in the workplace, even in managerial positions, making them less likely to become promotion candidates. Since male employees have higher visibility and can thrive in a male-dominated organization, they have an increased chance for promotions. Women may observe this within their organization and realize that their male counterparts have experienced career progression while they remain in their managerial positions.
Queen Bee Syndrome
As mentioned earlier, males are likely to form relationships with male decision-makers. This improves their workplace visibility and chances of getting a promotion. This also suggests that female employees are likely to form relationships with female decision-makers. However, the “Queen Bee Syndrome” acts as a barrier to this potential relationship between female employees and decision-makers (Keeton, 1996, cited in Babic & Hansez, 2021). This syndrome is a term for the phenomenon where women managers expect other women to work as hard as them to experience career progression. They may want female employees to undergo the same experiences and therefore are less likely to provide mentoring and friendly support. This further contributes to the existence of a glass ceiling in an organization.
Effects of Glass Ceiling on Employees
The existence of a glass ceiling can detrimentally affect the mental health of female employees. They may develop lower job satisfaction, an intention to quit, reduced self-esteem, and a lack of optimism (Babic & Hansez, 2021). Since they may feel that their efforts are not enough to achieve the promotion criteria, they may lose their self-confidence or develop a negative perception of the organization and their coworkers. Furthermore, the negative effects of the glass ceiling can cause poor psychological health that can affect job performances and personal lives.
The glass ceiling, despite being a metaphorical invisible barrier, has a real effect on women’s career progression and work satisfaction. Even decades after the coining of the term, the experiences of women have remained constant. The interpersonal and situational factors that affected women in the late 2000s still exist today. Additionally, despite the male-dominated organizational structures that largely contribute to the conditions of female employees, both men and women are responsible for the existence of the glass ceiling. The phenomenon is the result of the persistence of gender roles that require women to prove themselves more compared to men.
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Cohen, J., Dalton, D., Holder-Webb, L. & McMillan, J. (2018). An Analysis of Glass Ceiling Perceptions in the Accounting Profession. Journal of Business Ethics. Available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-018-4054-4. Accessed July 31, 2022.
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