Women in Management

by Rita Bailey

What is the glass ceiling?

Stemming from the 1970s, the ‘glass ceiling’ is a term used to describe the combination of factors that block or limit women’s access and progression into senior executive positions at the top of the organisation.

It is important for women in management to be aware what the glass ceiling is, what are the barriers of which it consists and how these can impact on their progress. In fact, it is relevant for all managers, for just as the glass ceiling can impact on your progress if you are female, so it can also impact on women you line manage or mentor.

Man forgives woman anything save the wit to outwit him.

Minna Thomas Antrim

Despite the changing attitudes towards male and female roles, there is still a large majority of male managers at the top. This suggests strongly that the glass ceiling still exists, despite legislation – initiated some 40 years ago now – intended to destroy it. The metaphor of the glass ceiling encapsulates the sense that women find themselves pushing against invisible barriers. They can see where they want to go, but are continually striving to obtain senior positions without succeeding. These well educated, competent women look up through the ceiling, clearly seeing where they want to go next, but they are prevented from getting there. Legislation has not proved strong enough to break the glass ceiling.

When examined closely, the actual ceiling is made up of organisational culture and social attitudes which are a source of discrimination. However subtly, the glass ceiling metaphor refers to genuine issues concerning access to certain positions, networks, opportunities, status and resources. Note that the glass ceiling can also exist at different levels within an organisation, whether at the top or at lower levels of progress within the structure.

Factors that make up the glass ceiling

Here are some of the factors that make up the ‘glass ceiling’:

  • Negative stereotypes of women, due to prejudices
  • The traditional management culture is so well established that managers are comfortable with traditional managers that look like them (male, white), so women are not considered as future leaders
  • Recruitment practices hire in the traditional management image
  • Recruitment practices for executive positions are not transparent
  • The benefits of a diverse workforce remain unclear to line managers
  • The perception that women are not willing to meet the demands of leadership, such as travel, long working hours or living abroad
  • The high visibility and responsibility, seen as vital for those who are able to access senior positions, are not always available to women, so they are not seen as being the natural choice for promotion.
  • A risk-averse culture – recruiting women into top management positions seems too risky and organisations are therefore slow to change
  • Limited opportunities for flexible working at senior and executive levels
  • Women have limited access to the networks and support that enhance promotion opportunities into senior positions
  • Women are held to different social or professional standards to those of their male counterparts.

Negative stereotypes of female managers

One explanation for the absence of women in top management positions is the negative stereotypes held about women as managers. Women are unfortunately still perceived as less competent than men when it comes to being considered for top leadership positions.

Fortunately, the differences between male and female managers have been challenged, documented and even incontrovertibly proved wrong, yet these stereotypes are still proving resistant to change, even in the 21st century. Female managers tend to be described as emotional, less confident, not analytical and therefore not leadership material in comparison with their male counterparts. Such beliefs and assumptions contribute to a variety of negative stereotypes about them.

Here are some typical outrageous and outdated stereotypes:

Toughness doesn’t have to come in a pinstripe suite.

Dianne Feinstein
  • Women’s incomes are supplemental; they are not the main bread winner so wouldn’t be interested in managerial positions
  • Women are the main carers and tend to see their family as their main priority before work demands, so they would not so committed to their managerial career
  • Women are not suited to top management positions because they lack the competencies required for those positions
  • Women can’t handle the toughness, think strategically or make the decisions required because they are too emotional; they take things personally, unlike their male colleagues.

What are some of the outdated stereotypes you may have come across during your career?