Women in the Workplace: The Glass Ceiling

If glass ceilings existed, they would allow people to see through to the world above them. Because glass is clear, those existing under such a ceiling might not, at first, even notice that a barrier was in place which separated them from higher levels. Yet if they tried to pass through, they would quickly learn that the ceiling prevented them from doing that. But letís face it. Women have known about glass ceilings in the executive suite and throughout all levels of the workforce long before the Wall Street Journal highlighted the problem in March 1986. It was coined in the media to describe what happens to women when they are denied opportunity to the upper levels of executive management. Thousands of qualified women and minority men are routinely denied top level jobs in corporate America. But instead of calling it racism, sexism, or xenophobia, we call it the "glass ceiling." For people confronting these barriers, it is discrimination - plain and simple.

Glass ceiling" is a term that describes the artificial plateau, beyond which women and other minorities are denied the opportunity to advance to upper levels of executive management in corporate America (Castro, 1997). It has become a routine practice to deny thousands of qualified women the top level jobs, merited by their performance. The "glass ceiling" barriers toward women are nothing but an insidious form of sex discrimination, in violation of law(Feldman, 1997). Glass ceiling barriers exist at all levels of an organization and affect people at different levels in various industries. And while CEOs increasingly recognize the value of work force diversity, particularly at the management levels, glass ceiling barriers continue to deny women and minorities the opportunity to compete for and hold executive level position in the private sector.

The Commissionís fact finding report, "Good For Business: Making Full Use of The Nationís Capital" was issued last March. It highlighted some of the most telling data. Surveys of the top Fortune 1000 industrial and 500 service companies show that 95 percent of the senior level managers are men and of that 95 percent, 97 percent are white. That translates into slightly more than 2100 senior women executives in these companies - far too few in proportion to their numbers in the workforce. And only five percent of these senior women are minorities. This at a time when there are 58.4 million working women in America, more than 45 percent of the U.S. work force. Although the Fortune companies are limited in their number, their influence in the marketplace is substantial. Statistics for small and medium sized businesses are scarce (Castro, 1997).

This does not say that women are not moving up the corporate ladder. Surveys show that between 1982 and 1992, the proportion of women holding the title of executive vice president rose from 4 to 9 percent (Feldman, 1997). Those at the senior vice president level rose from 13 to 23 percent. And a recent study by Catalyst shows a growth of women on the boards of directors of the Fortune 500 (Andrica, 1997). Eighty-one percent - or 404 companies - now have one or more female directors, up from 376 companies last year. Yet despite the steady increases, women still hold only 1 in 10 board seats (Andrica, 1997). It is time for corporations to move beyond the "quota of one" and more fully tap the talents of a rising tide of female leaders.

This progress does not necessarily mean that the earnings gap between female and male executives is disappearing. Surveys show women executives in 1992 earning an average $187,000 and men earning an average $289,000 - a difference of $102,000 in average compensation (Castro, 1997). Why does this happen? Itís not because women are not prepared. The number of women holding bachelor and post graduate degrees has steadily increased (Wells, 1997). And more and more postgraduate degrees are in the field of business management and law - the credentials that are now considered to be prerequisites for senior management positions (Wells, 1997).

Some try to justify the idea of the glass ceiling for a number of reasons. First of all, to become a CEO or president of a major corporation means forsaking, or at least subordinating nearly all other aspects of life to oneís career. Such a level of responsibility along with its attendant financial success requires putting in seventy or eighty-hour weeks (Feldman, 1997). This demands oneís almost complete submersion in and dedication to overseeing both the short-term and long-run needs of the business one manages which results in the loss of time available to spend with family or in recreation. In our society, more men than women, for whatever reason, are willing to commit themselves to the course of action demanded by such a rigorous goal. Some women, however, are not family-oriented, but work-oriented. These women should have just as much as an equal opportunity to throw themselves into their work and move up in the business world as men do. However, there are many women forsake high-powered business careers in favor of the less tangible rewards of greater flexibility in work schedules. This allows them to invest more time in raising the family and participating in leisure activities.

Even for many women who devote their full attention to career issues, many fail adequately to understand how much of the corporate world works. Advancement in the business world frequently is based upon principles most men subconsciously learn as they grow up. It operates in ways emulating team sports and the military chain-of-command. Women who fail to understand the importance of office politics, going through the proper channels, and being able to make decisions quickly put themselves at an automatic disadvantage (Wells, 1997). Corporate life is a game which is not always fair: for men or women. Being able to take risks without making participating in after-hours activities may not set well with some women, but for the present, the reality of the situation needs to be acknowledged if it is ever to change.

Despite any barriers of prejudice remaining in business and elsewhere, there is no need to invoke conscious (or subconscious) male-led conspiracies designed to deny women opportunities for achievement. Whatever the objective merits or shortcomings of the different goals selected by men and women, the reality of those differences provides a sufficient explanation for most situations (Himelstein, 1997). Businesses which continue to hire only males for top level positions out of a desire to maintain a "good old boys" environment will eventually find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with rivals who promote more competent, underpaid females to do the same kind of work (Wells, 1997).

The Academy of Women Achievers is a group of women who get together to try and shatter this "glass ceiling". Recently, more than 1,300 senior executives came together at the New York Sheraton Hotel for the 23rd Annual Salute to Women Achievers (Himelstein, 1997). They raised more than $1 million to benefit the YWCA of the City of New York in their long-standing goal of assisting women in the workforce (Himelstein, 1997). This Academy of Women Achievers recently inducted 122 new members, hailing the outstanding contributions of executive and other professional women across the nation and around the globe (Himelstein, 1997). Induction into the Academy is a nationally-recognized honor bestowed by the YWCA. Senior women are assisted back into the workforce through executive programs at the Y (Himelstein, 1997). Programs such as "Women and Management" reach women on many different levels. The programs are tied in with CEOs, where women and management issues and opportunities are addressed. Academy members act as mentors involving career related issues and offer opportunities providing a rich network of information sharing.

While opportunities for women in business have improved considerably, it remains clear that the doors to the top are not always open to them. A 1993 survey indicated that 37 percent of women who left their jobs "were tired of battling the glass ceiling" (Feldman, 1997).

The proper avenue for victims of prejudice is to respect the very rights which protect them: to seek change by persuasion, education, and argument by working harder and producing more than those who do discriminate against them; and by utilizing only nonviolent means to their noble ends. Better yet, they can create their own businesses where women seeking executive positions are welcomed, not rejected. They need to realize that the initiation of force is always wrong. The constructive power of demonstrating merit will, in the long run and despite personal prejudice, win out over the destructive actions of discrimination. Left to itself, evil is powerless to achieve anything beyond its own demise (Castro, 1997).

Those who complain about glass ceilings should keep in mind that glass can be shattered if one strikes it hard enough and long enough.

Bibliography Andrica, Diane. (1997). The Glass Ceiling: Are you Affected? Nursing Economics. v15 n3 p162. Castro, Ida L., Furchtgott-Roth, Diana. (1997). Should Women be Worried About the Glass Ceiling in the Workplace? Insight on the News. v13 n5 p24. Feldman, Gayle. (1997). Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Women Have Had a Long Hard Struggle to Reach Their Current Stutus in the Industry. Publishers Weekly. v244 n31 p82. Himelstein, Linda. (1997). Breaking Through. Business Week. n3514 p64. Wells, Jennifer. (1997). Stuck on the Ladder. Macleanís. v15 n3 p162.