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Are Glass Ceilings Career Obstacles Or Barriers Designed To Keep Women Out?

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“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.

Representative Image.

What’s A Glass Ceiling?

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.

What It Takes For Women To ‘Make It’ At Work

Woman working on laptop in her office
Representative Image.

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”.

The Ceiling Continues To Exist

Representative Image.

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.

Women In The Workforce Are Also Caregivers At Home

Daughter hugs mother while working on laptop in the balcony
Representative Image.

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.

What Aren’t We Still Seeing About The Glass Ceiling

Representative Image.

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.

Final Words

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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