Glass ceilings and cliffs
Glass ceilings and glass cliffs are metaphors that represent key barriers women face in the workplace. The term “glass” is used because these barriers can be invisible, yet nonetheless are significant obstacles for many women’s career advancement. There is both archival and experimental evidence supporting the existence of both the glass ceiling and glass cliff .
Why are glass ceilings and cliffs a gender issue?
Although women in male-dominated fields seem to hit the glass ceiling, men in female-dominated fields are not similarly impeded. Instead, men benefit from gender norms that match typically masculine traits with the skills and capabilities necessary for senior leadership. This serves as a masculine advantage when it comes to men’s promotion in female-dominated workplaces . Some research suggests that rather than a ceiling, men instead ride the ‘glass escalator’, helping them to accelerate through organisation ranks towards leadership positions .
In academia, The Monitor Women Professors (2016) report revealed a “ruthlessly thick” glass ceiling within Dutch universities . Statistics showed that fewer than one in five professors in the Netherlands are women. Furthermore, female academics earned, on average, 53 euros less per month than men. They were also systematically awarded lower job levels.
In contrast, the glass cliff is a double-edged sword for women’s advancement. On one hand, institutions in crisis are more likely to take risks, try new things, and question the status quo . As such, poor organisational performance offers women the opportunity to secure leadership roles.
On the other hand, the glass cliff phenomenon suggests that breaking through the glass ceiling is not enough. Men may be more likely to initially turn down glass cliff roles , leaving women to take on these precarious positions not because they are more suited to the role, but because they are “not men” . Once in the role, observers are more likely to blame leaders for poor organisational performance than to blame situational factors . This means women in glass cliff roles, far from being set on an upward career trajectory, instead may face diminished career prospects. For example, leaders of poor performing companies are less likely to be appointed to leadership positions in the future . Furthermore, given the rarity of women in senior roles, one woman’s leadership failure may result in observers drawing negative conclusions about all women’s abilities to perform in leadership roles .
Strategies for managing glass ceilings and cliffs
What can you or your organisation do to break through the invisible leadership barrier, or stop yourself falling from a precarious leadership perch?
Organisations can make a variety of changes to account for this decision-making bias, to decrease the barriers that women face in the form of glass ceilings and cliffs :
Awareness is key: awareness is the first step to changing biased decision-making. Knowing that there is an issue for women in leadership can help with formulating a strategic organizational response.
Objective performance evaluations: use objective measures of performance to judge female leaders. It is easy for a company in crisis to be swayed by subjective (and potentially biased) opinions of stakeholders and investors, rather than using objective indices to evaluate performance.
Diversity programs: engage in programs such as unconscious bias training which are designed to de-bias decision making and raise awareness of bias and discriminatory practices. Reducing gendered associations may drive a more objective, skills-based appointment process.
Utilize social resources: ensure that women have access to appropriate formal and informal social resources, such as mentors, networks, and support programs.
Framing of interventions: don’t just discuss stereotypes of women – it runs the risk of normalizing men as being seen as a more ‘natural’ fit for leadership roles. Find a balance, for example, by running programs as ways of tackling structural inequality or using gender-neutral promotion of training programs.