Do women still face a glass ceiling in employment?

Published: 2021-09-29 23:25:04
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Category: Women, Glass, Glass Ceiling

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The following study focuses on the problem of gender inequality in employment. While general employment opportunities for women has significantly improved over the past decades, many scholars and researchers argue that women still meet obstacles with regard to being promoted into top-level management positions. Such barriers to women’s career progressions are popularly known as the glass ceiling.
The following research seeks evidence of the glass ceiling on the global labour market by an in-depth analysis of relevant statistics and data on gender inequality. The research revealed that indeed, the glass ceiling still exists on the labour market. Women are strongly underrepresented in management-level positions. Additionally, female executives are paid lower wages compared to their male counterparts. The glass ceiling is largely a consequence of insufficient government efforts towards breaking the glass ceiling as well as of masculine corporate culture that often do not support women’s individual development.

Historically, women were facing disadvantages in all spheres of life including health, education, politics and the labour market. Over the past decades, international bodies took steps to tackle the problems of gender inequality and women’s empowerment. In 2000, the United Nations listed gender equality amongst its Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. UNICEF constantly develops new programmes aiming at equitable education access for girls and boys so that they have equal career opportunities (UNICEF, 2012). In turn, in 2010 the EU established the European Institute for Gender Equality focused on eliminating sex discrimination and protecting women’s rights in the member states (Purcell, 2006).
Without doubts, these steps brought numerous benefits to women. The enrollment ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education is equivalent to 97.2 (2010), while the female labour participation rate, measured as a percentage of all females ages 15 and above, reaches 51.2% (2011). Also the gender pay gap has gradually narrowed (World Bank, 2012). While the women’s situation on the labour market improved, they still face significant challenges with regard to career advancement to senior executive positions. According to the consulting company, Accenture, women share only insignificant proportion of senior level positions. Moreover, female senior executives are paid lower wages than male senior official. This phenomenon relates to both the developing world as well as the most advanced economies such as the US, the UK and Australia. In turn, the World Economic Forum revealed that the world’s largest employers fail to establish optimal environment for women’s professional development (The World Economic Forum, 2010). These facts suggest that the gender glass ceiling, the invisible barrier to women’s career advancement, still exist on global labour market, preventing women from promotions to senior level positions.
The aim of this research is to seek evidence of the glass ceiling on the contemporary labour market. First, the essay briefly discusses the concept of the glass ceiling. Second, it demonstrates evidence of the gender ceiling based on selected international and national studies on gender inequalities. Finally, the essay concludes key findings and presents policy recommendations.
The glass ceiling
The term “glass ceiling” was used for the first time in 1984 by the editor of Working Women magazine, who states that “Women have reached a certain point –I call it the glass ceiling – in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck” (Boyd, 2012, p.1). However, the official definition was introduced in 1991 by the US Department of Labour. The glass ceiling was described as “artifice barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions”[1] (Boyd, 2012, p.2). Cotter (2001) postulate that the glass ceiling cannot be used to describe all forms of gender inequalities in employment. He proposes four criteria that help defining this phenomenon. First, the glass ceiling can be acknowledged if gender inequalities cannot be proved by other job-related features of employee such as education, experience or skills because these features are the same for female and male employees. Second, the glass ceiling can be assumed if the degree of gender inequalities at management level is higher than such the degree for non-managerial and nonprofessional positions. In case gender inequalities are the same at all different employment levels, a “common pattern of gender inequality” (Cotter, 2001, p.4) is observed rather than the glass ceiling. Third, the glass ceiling does not refer only to the current shares of female and male representatives in the executive boards, but also to potential promotions within a particular time period. The authors explain that current proportions largely reflect previous conditions. For instance, if women decide to leave jobs more often than men due to expected poor career opportunities, automatically more men will be in the executive board even if promotion rate were even. Fourth, the glass ceiling is strongly related to career trajectories. Gender inequality grows with career advancement – at higher career level women face more discrimination cases than at lower career levels[2] (Cotter, 2001).
The concept of the glass ceiling has often been criticized. The opponents argue that in practice the glass ceiling does not exist. Women face career barriers due to their own choices such as childbearing or family responsibilities. These decisions have an impact on lower wages and delayed career advancement. Thus, the institutional and structural settings cannot be blamed for gender inequalities at work (Boyd, 2012). Also Simpson and Altman (2000) argue that the traditional concept of the glass ceiling needs to be reinterpreted. Their studies revealed that young women are equally treated to their male counterparts in terms of career advancement and wages. However, career development is more challenging for elder women who are often refused promotions. Thus, the glass ceiling is punctured. The authors also postulate that the glass ceiling appears more commonly at top management level, at which men are more likely to be promoted. Thus, the glass ceiling should be seen as time bounded.
Evidence of the glass ceiling in employment
While gender inequalities are strongly visible in developing countries, advanced economies are characterized by almost equal access to education and employment for women and men. In this context, the fact that women are strongly underrepresented in the senior executive management constitutes perhaps the best proof of existing glass ceiling. Numerous international and national studies seem to undertake the glass ceiling topic, seeking evidence of its presence in employment.
Following the Grant Thornton estimations, in 2011 female representatives accounted for 20% of senior management positions globally. These statistics were based on 6,000 interviews with employers in 40 countries. As Appendix 1 shows, there are great disparities with regard to female senior management positions amongst the countries. Russia, Botswana and the Philippines are characterized by the highest rates of women in senior management. Surprisingly, the world’s most advanced economies such as the US, the UK or Germany have the rates falling below the global average rate. These figures indicate that in spite of available financial resources, the most advanced economies do not give a priority to women’s empowerment and their career development and thus, also do not constitute a role model for developing world in this area (GrantThornton, 2012).
Another cross-national research on employment equality was conducted by the consulting company, Accenture in 2006. The study included 590 executives from six countries (UK, Australia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Philippines). Research provided solid evidence of the glass ceiling in these countries. First, in 2006 women accounted for between 39-46% of the total labour force. At the same time, they represented from 4% (Switzerland) to 13% (Austria) of senior executive roles. Additionally, female managers were on average paid 79% of men’s salaries. Accenture also prepared the Global Glass Ceiling Index informing how thick the glass ceiling is with regard to three areas:
individual (professional competence and ambitions, career planning);
company (transparent promotion process, training programmes and mentoring);
society (equal career opportunities, government policy on women’s rights).
As Appendix 2 shows, the glass ceiling existed in all countries, but also in all three researched areas. Governments were mainly responsible for the thickness of the glass ceiling. The interviewees argued that government legislation did not support adequately women’s career development. The interviewees also admitted that corporate mentoring and coaching programmes were not designed to meet women’s needs and thus, did not facilitate women’s career development. Overall, employers were more committed to gender equality than national governments (Accenture, 2006).
Additional evidence of the glass ceiling can be gathered from the Corporate Gender Report 2010, prepared by the World Economic Forum. The research included 100 largest employers from the OECD countries and the BRIC countries. The research revealed that the majority of women in these companies performed entry- or middle-level roles, while on average 5% of female employees held the CEO-level positions. This report also identified general norms and culture in researched countries as well as masculine corporate culture as two key barriers to women’s advancement to senior leadership. Finally, the report informed that 18% of companies did not monitor salary differences between women and men, while other 15% established salary tracking policies but did not implement corrective measures. It suggests that a significant proportion of companies do not treat gender pay gap as a sign of women’s discrimination (Zahidi and Ibarra, 2010).
While the above-presented studies provide solid evidence of existing glass ceiling, it is crucial to briefly discuss a country-level analysis conducted by Ernst and Young. It is one of the most recent analyses of the glass ceiling (2012), which reveals new information on the phenomenon and adds value to this research. The survey included 1,000 adult women in the UK who jointly agreed that the glass ceiling was present on the British labour market face. More importantly, women argued that the concept of a single ceiling to enter the senior executive board was outdated, as they experienced multiple barriers throughout their career development. Ernst and Young defined four major challenges for women, namely motherhood, age, qualifications and experience as well as lack of role models. Not only can these barriers affect women at any time throughout their careers, but all of them (or a few of them) can appear at the same time. It proves again that women are constantly disadvantaged with regard to career advancement (Woods, 2012).
While the glass ceiling is confirmed by numerous analyses, some researchers come to very different conclusions on this phenomenon. This fact needs to be emphasized. For instance, the study of the US labour market conducted by Gayle (2009) revealed that women were more successful than men in terms of career development. Women were equally likely to be promoted as their male counterparts. Surprisingly, women were more likely to be promoted within the internal structures rather than by receiving an outside offer. Female executive tended to earn slightly higher wages than men. The authors explained visible gender inequalities in the executive market by “unobserved factors” (Gayle, 2009, p.28) such as tough unrewarding assignments, high competition, or indignities that are characterized for the senior management environment and that discourage women from climbing the career ladder. In case of women performing executive duties, these factors encouraged them to early retirement. Interesting findings also come from the aforementioned research conducted by Simpson and Altman (2001) on the British market. The glass ceiling affected elder women’s careers; however, it did not impact young women under 35. Young female generation was raised assuming that gender equality was their natural right, given at birth. Due to this perception and career-oriented minds, they are perceived by the employers as ‘high flyers’ (Simpson and Altman, 2001, p.195) rather than as women – they are treated equally to men in terms of career advancement. However, as women establish new priorities later in their lives (i.e. family), the employers see them again as women. Thus, their career promotion becomes more challenging at this later stage.
To conclude, the following research provided solid proofs that the gender glass ceiling still exists in employment across the globe. Not only women represent less than 20% of senior management roles globally, but they are also paid lower wages for performing executive duties compared to their male counterparts. The analyses conducted by Accenture and the World Economic Forum prove that the government policies seem to be significant obstacles to eliminating the glass ceiling in employment. The governments do not pay enough attention to equal career opportunities for men and women and they constantly fail to develop adequate policies to facilitate women’s advancement. Also companies seem to challenge women’s development in their workplace. The companies are typically characterized by a masculine corporate culture. They often fail to establish salary tracking systems and to correct wages disparities. Finally, the mentoring and coaching programmes offered by the companies are often inadequate to women’s individual needs and block their potential development. It is worth adding that the most recent analysis, conducted by Ernst and Young, reveals that currently women face multiple challenges in career advancement rather than a single ceiling. These multiple barriers often appear at the same time what seem to make women’s career progression more questionable.
In order to tackle the problem of the glass ceiling, the following policy recommendations were drawn:
The companies need to be forced to take equal career development issues seriously. Norway seems to be a good example to be followed. Norwegian companies are required to have 40% women in their management board. While such a percentage is quite challenging for most countries, setting lower but obligatory quotas is expected to work well.
The companies should also be encouraged to create own lists of good practice with a particular focus on women’s needs. Such companies can become role models, inspiring other companies to take similar actions, what is expected to result in improved working conditions for women.
Targeted actions should be implemented. Industrial and professional associations should actively challenge unfair practices and policies to provide better career opportunities for women (Purcell, 2006).
List of references
Accenture (2006). The anatomy of glass ceiling. [online] Available from: (Accessed on 28.11.2012).
Boyd K.S. (2012). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Society: Glass Ceiling. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, pp. 549-552.
Cotter D.A., Hermsen J.M., Ovadia S. and Vanneman R. (2001). The Glass Ceiling Effect. Social Forces. 80(2), pp. 655-682.
Gayle G.L., Golan L. and Miller, R. (2009). Are there glass ceilings for female executivesPittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University.
Grant Thornton (2012). Grant Thornton International Business Report. Women in senior management: still not enough. London: Grant Thornton International Limited.
Purcell K., Elias P. and Wilton, N. (2006). Looking through the glass ceiling: a detailed investigation into the factors that contribute to gendered career inequalities. Coventry: Warwick Institute for Employment Research.
Simpson R. and Altman Y. (2000). The time bounded glass ceiling and young women managers: career progress and career success – evidence from the UK. Journal of European Industrial Training. 24(2). Pp. 190-198.
UNICEF (2012). Basic education and gender equality [online database] Available from: (Accessed on 28.11.2012).
Woods D. (2012). Glass ceiling is ‘outdated’, Ernst and Young survey of 1,000 women reveals. [online] Available from: (Accessed on 28.11.2012).
World Bank (2012). The World Development Indicators. [online database] Available from: (Accessed on 28.11.2012).
Zahidi S. and Ibbara H. (2010). The Corporate Gender Gap Report 2010. Geneva: World Economic Forum.

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