Every year, more women crash through the glass ceiling. Of course, women at the top are still far from the majority. In most companies, women represent only a fraction of executives. For example, women hold only 4.2% of CEO positions in the 500 largest U.S. companies. This raises the obvious question: What continues to prevent women from crashing through the glass ceiling?
We know that women are now just as likely and even more likely than men to obtain college degrees and even graduate degrees. We also know that in terms of numbers, outside the IT sector where women are under-represented in most capacities (except for administrative assistant roles), women are more or less equally represented in the workforce. So what is going wrong? If women are already acquiring the degrees and entry-level experience required to move up into executive roles, why are they failing to do so in higher numbers?
Factors Blocking the Glass Ceiling
The long and short of it is that while women appear to be getting hired and even promoted to mid-management position, they continue to be blocked at the executive level. The reasons for this are complex, but to extend the metaphor, there are many factors (not visible to everyone) that continue to block the glass ceiling. To begin, consider just some of the findings of the late 2015 report, Elephant in the Valley—a survey of women working in the Silicon Valley for venture capital and technology companies.
Double Standards and Exclusion
- 84% of the women surveyed have been told they were too aggressive on one or more occasions
- 47% have been asked to do lower-level tasks, like taking notes or ordering food, that their male colleagues are not asked to do
- 66% have felt excluded from key social/networking opportunities on the basis of their gender
- 59% feel they have not had the same opportunities as their male counterparts to advance
- 88% reported clients/colleagues addressing questions to male peers that should have been addressed to them and 84% reported clients/colleagues making eye contact with males colleagues rather than them during meetings
- 90% reported witnessing sexist behavior at company offsite events and/or industry conferences
- 87% reported being the subject of demeaning comments from male colleagues
- 75% said they were asked about family life, marital status and children during their interview (notably, this is illegal)
- 60% of women in tech reported unwanted sexual advances from colleagues or clients
- 65% of those who reported unwanted sexual advances had received the advances from a superior (half reported this happening more than once)
- 33% of the women surveyed felt afraid for their personal safety because of work-related circumstances
Systemic and Structural Barriers
- 40% feel the need to speak less about their family to be taken more seriously
- Of those who took a maternity leave, 52% shortened it because they believed the leave would negatively impact their career
- 60% who reported sexual harassment were dissatisfied with the response from their employer and/or colleagues
- 39% of those harassed did not report the incident because they believed it would negatively impact their career
- 30% did not report in order to forget
- 29% signed a “non-disparagement agreement” (this is a clause that effectively prevents individuals from taking any action that may negatively impact an organization, its reputation, products, services, management or employees).
Anti-Bias and Leadership Training
While training is not the only answer, there is no question that to move forward, training for men and women is required. For men, even well-intention men, training is still needed to help become increasingly aware of the biases they bring to their work, including their performance reviews of women employees. Anti-bias training can also help men identify and intervene in hostile workplace environments (e.g., to move more men from bystanders to change agents). For women, leadership training is also bound to play a major role in the ongoing effort to place more women in executive roles. Leadership training is one way to help people identify their strengths, become more self-awareness, analyze their professional relationships and clarify their leadership vision. Targeted leadership training for women has been found to be especially effective.