“How Jane Fraser Broke Banking’s Highest Glass Ceiling”. That’s the headline of a Fortune article published in late 2020 talking of Jane Fraser’s appointment as the new CEO of Citigroup. Fraser became the first woman in history to lead a major Wall Street bank and Fortune wanted to devote a panegyric on “how she broke the glass ceiling”.
But do we need to know HOW Fraser broke the glass ceiling, or should we be wondering WHY it took so long for a single woman to attain a leadership position in a bank whose origins date back to the 19th century? We’ll come back to this question as we progress through the article.
It has been more than 40 years since the phrase “breaking the glass ceiling” was first used in 1978 by Marilyn Loden. Initially, it was used to describe the invisible barriers (mostly, cultural) that kept women from going up the corporate ladder. Today, the metaphor of the glass ceiling has been broadened to include discrimination against minorities as well.
“Hitting the glass ceiling” suggests that women and minorities are more likely to be restricted from advancing beyond a certain point in their careers because of implicit biases and cultural ideas about what a “right” candidate looks like and what they can bring to the table. When it was first used, the popular opinion was that women lacked the experience and credentials to lead and that’s why they were not being promoted to higher positions.
Today, we know that this is not the case. A 2017 landmark study by Korn Ferry showed that not only were women CEOs likely to have worked in a greater number of roles, companies, industries but also some of their best abilities included courage, resilience, agility, ability to take calculated risks and manage ambiguity.
So, when we celebrate a woman or a person from a minority community for “breaking the glass ceiling”, what we don’t notice is how that celebration implies that there is, and inevitably, will be a ceiling that has to be broken. It is seldom asked or paid attention to why there is a ceiling in the first place and who keeps it that way.
It’s how that Taylor Swift song goes where she says: “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can, wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man?”
Well, according to research, yes, you would get there quicker if you were a man, as women are 18% less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues. Does the idea of “breaking the glass ceiling” actually do justice to the struggles of women and minorities to get to top management?
In this article, we look specifically at women in terms of how the ceiling is exactly being “broken” and if the barriers the ceiling symbolises are actually affected, and how the idea of the ceiling may itself be misleading.
After industrialisation, the factory became the principal unit of production, leading to a division between the private (the home) and the public (the workplace). With time, the home increasingly came to be associated with women and the workplace with men.
It was said, men went “out” to work and the women “stayed at home”. Therefore, today everything assumed to be the workplace norm are standards of a structure that was built by putting men at the centre. Usually, when non-men folk rise to prominence, it is only through negotiating or complying with the pre-existing structure and not by changing the structure itself.
Let’s go back in time for a minute and understand this better. According to a large-scale 1998 survey of Fortune 1000 CEOs and the highest-ranking, most successful women in their companies, the women reported that they constantly had to prove their ability and needed to over-perform in order to counter the negative assumptions in a predominantly male business environment.
The study may be old, but the conditions haven’t changed as much. In another 2012 study by Harvard Business Review, female employees reiterated the same idea:
“We need to work harder than men to prove ourselves.”
“We feel the constant pressure to never make a mistake, and to continually prove our value to the organisation.”
But performance, or rather over-performance, hasn’t been enough. Women in managerial positions have had to develop managerial styles that were neither masculine nor feminine but acceptable to male colleagues, supervisors and subordinates. This put women in a double bind.
If their managerial styles were “feminine”, they risked not being viewed as effective managers. If they followed “masculine” styles, viewed as appropriate for managerial roles, they were privy to being criticised for not being feminine. These restrictions on behaviours were summarised by a respondent as a list of don’ts for female executives:
“Don’t be attractive. Don’t be too smart. Don’t be assertive. Pretend you’re not a woman. Don’t be single. Don’t be a mom. Don’t be a divorcee.”
Therefore, not only did women have to surpass performance expectations, but they also had to find the “right” way to perform not to threaten their male peers or make them uncomfortable. In fact, 96% of the women executives had to adapt to a predominantly male culture and develop a professional style suitable, or let’s say, non-threatening to men.
Besides being in contrast with the current views on diversity and inclusion, demands from workplaces like these force women to adapt, placing the entire burden of change on them to “break the glass ceiling”.
What’s important to note from the example of the 1998 study of Fortune 1000 CEOs is that while individuals may be able to achieve success, the structure doesn’t change and the barriers continue to persist.
The current work environment and culture were designed for men by men, to be responsive to their needs and further their advancement. Consequently, such environments remain inhospitable to women and other non-men folk and are bound to make them feel excluded while also putting significant obstacles to their advancement.
For one, there are different standards of evaluation for women and men informed by stereotypical ideas, biases and notions about women and their leadership skills.
Culturally viewed as submissive and docile, women are often overlooked for leadership and managerial roles, lacking the ‘assertiveness” that men are presumed to have as “born leaders”.
According to a 2018 survey by staffing firm Randstad U.S., 56 % of women attribute outdated biases and stereotypes as the second-largest issue affecting gender inequality in the workplace, ranked just below wage-inequality.
Hence, women face the challenge of proving to their male colleagues, who are often the decision-makers, that they are individuals who should be evaluated based on their individual abilities and not because they’re women.
Women are also frequently left right out of informal networks and circles, which research shows have a role to play in a promotion. Since they are not viewed as “just one of the guys”, they are not members of the in-group.
Indeed, in the previously mentioned Fortune 1000 survey, most of the female executives persistently highlighted the importance of influential male mentors, with pre-established networks and credibility, who sponsored their female proteges into senior management circles and provided inside information which they otherwise couldn’t have had.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021, only 22.3% of women in India are a part of the labour market. Consequently, the situation in India, with just 14.6% women in senior/leadership roles, is one of the worst in South Asia.
One way to understand these abysmal numbers is to acknowledge the lack of recognition of women’s varied roles, responsibilities and expectations in society.
Unfortunately, most women are also principal caregivers at home. In the absence of inclusive work policies, women find it difficult to put in the extra hours. This often keeps women from taking up or being considered for promotions.
For instance, researchers in a 2018 study published in The New York Times found: “…women underestimate the costs of motherhood. The mismatch is biggest for those with college degrees, who invest in an education and expect to maintain a career.”
The experience is also summed up well by EJ Dickson, a mother and a writer/editor for the Rolling Stone magazine, “I am constantly frustrated and frazzled, and — to be honest — angry that having children and a career is still such a heroic feat.”
Therefore, women have to constantly negotiate their social roles and expectations with the demands of their jobs, a challenge their male counterparts may not even face. Again, an out-of-date social support framework places the burden for change on the individual woman.
Another issue that the idea of the glass ceiling may conceal is related to getting to the point where you “hit the ceiling”. If the metaphor describes a barrier at a certain high organisational level, it implies that women and men have equal access to entry and mid-level positions. But that is not the case. If anything, women are particularly disadvantaged in relation to men when it comes to going from lower to middle-management.
The extremely poor representation of women at the top of the hierarchy might make it seem that only women who were “good enough” made it there. In reality, women aren’t turned away only as they are about to reach the conclusive stage of their career.
They fade away into the system many times leading up to that point, for discrimination is more or less constant throughout the different levels of an organisation. Therefore, portraying a single, unwavering glass ceiling may fail to incorporate the complexity and variety of trials faced by women in their journey to the top.
Commitment to breaking the glass ceiling, while important, is not enough. There need to be comprehensive programs that break down structural, organisational and cultural barriers while creating effective pipelines that identify, develop and promote women and other non-men folks. This includes reassessing what competence looks like, what activities are valued and how work gets done.
Last but not least, for any change to be effective, it has to come from the top. Corporate leaders can no longer be oblivious to the barriers faced by their female employees. With only 8% women on the 500 CEOs on Fortune’s 2020 list and 6% women in India, it is high time we revisit the idea of the “glass ceiling” and rethink on who we place the onus of change.
Written by: Ammara Qaisar
About the author: Ammara is a second-year student at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women, majoring in Sociology and minoring in Journalism.