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Webinar #17: Breaking through glass ceilings and glass walls

Updated: Feb 19, 2023

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.

Host of the Women in Research 'Small wins' webinar series, Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellow and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design Professor Sharon Parker shares her personal observations and advice around breaking through the invisible leadership and occupational barriers.

Sharon was graciously joined by ARC Laureate Fellow Professor Ann McGrath (Australian National University) and ARC Laureate Fellow Professor Leann Tilley (University of Melbourne), who shared their candid experiences.

Definition of concepts limiting women’s representation at senior levels

  • Glass ceilings: Invisible systemic barriers that inhibit women and minorities advancing upwards in their career

  • Glass floor / sticky floor: When women do not get the same resources as comparable male colleagues

  • Glass walls: Systemic barriers that inhibit women’s movement into particular roles and occupations

  • Leaky pipeline: Women prematurely leaving higher education / academia (often referring to STEM specifically) at multiple points along the career journey

  • Glass cliffs: Women being appointed into leadership positions that are precarious and/ or risky

  • Glass escalator: Hidden advantages for men in female professions

  • Matilda effect: Bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues

Main challenges for women:

  • Gender stereotypes that depict women as unsuited to leadership or particular jobs and incompetent

  • Discrimination in pay and promotion

  • Lack of access to powerful mentors and networks

  • Greater responsibility for childcare and other domestic responsibilities

  • Note that a combination of different minority identifies (intersectionality) has a greater negative effect than each alone e.g., gender, sexuality, race, disability, class, etc.

Sharon’s tips on breaking barriers in academia using the ‘glass’ analogy:

  • Glass is very strong and very durable, can feel impossible and overwhelming

  • Glass is transparent and invisible, we sometimes do not know that it is there (do not blame yourself!)

  • Glass is incredibly varied, which can take you by surprise

  • Glass can be made visible! can help bring about change!

  • Glass can be broken! Take a small chunk out of the glass ceiling and put them together and collectively make something great!

  • Glass can be melted! Keep the heat on and create something altogether new and strong!

Ann’s personal experience with not being heard during meetings, and what she learned after receiving support from a trusted peer:

  • Stop blaming yourself, organize back-up from an ally so your views are properly heard

  • Do the research that you think is important and that you enjoy

  • Be aware that you can change the field you’re in; you can challenge its paradigms

  • Take risks and take opportunities when they are there; make opportunities!

  • Be wary of invitations that are flattering, but that will take you away from goals already set - weigh the opportunity cost!

  • Make networks of support and use them wisely

  • Never be stopped by a knock-back

  • Listen to advice

  • Enjoy doing something in your downtime

Leann’s learnings from being a scientist in a male-dominated field:

  • Do not give up

  • Do not put yourself down. Most people will value you at your own evaluation.

  • Put your hand up.

  • Choose your life partner well

  • Feel the passion

  • Enjoy the journey

  • Take every opportunity – especially if it takes you outside your comfort zone

  • Seek joy in the achievement of others

  • How to overcome imposter syndrome. Passion. Inner drive. Hard work. The vision makes it all worthwhile

  • Feel the fear and do it anyway

Download PDF • 5.12MB


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