A student at my daughter’s middle school interviewed me yesterday for a research paper on the proverbial glass ceiling. As I answered her questions, I couldn’t help thinking about where her generation will find glass ceilings. According to a joint study by Deloitte and the American Alliance for Board Diversity, the total number of women on Fortune 100 boards of directors increased from 16.9% in 2004 to 23% in 2016. That’s a very modest gain given the emphasis on diversity in the last decade. And those are the biggest corporations in America.
As you get into the Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 and beyond, the numbers look much worse. At this rate, gender parity at the board of directors level won’t happen in the Fortune 100 until my daughter and her friend are 27 years old. And the chances of parity further down the corporate chain are even further off.
The key to change is awareness for the powers that be, and getting that awareness to translate into changes in training and policy across the organization.
The factors that contribute to the glass ceiling are complex. Here are three of the top issues I see as contributing to barriers that prevent women from those top executive positions.
- People in power tend to recruit, train, and promote people who look, think and behave the way they do. This well-known sociological pattern is at the root of why white men, who have been in power for centuries, select young males similar to themselves to mentor, sponsor, train and promote.
- Sociological behavior is slow to evolve. Women gained the right to vote less than 100 years ago. Many employment practices, pay policies, and bank lending rules unfairly discriminated against women for decades (some persist today.) For instance, until The Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988, a woman still had to have a man present at the bank to co-sign for a business loan in many states.
- Implicit bias is a frequent occurrence the workplace, politics, education, and even healthcare. Implicit bias affects many groups, and is often based on gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Women often need to prove themselves more than men, due to the implicit bias that they are inferior. Women are often passed over for choice projects or promotions due to the bias that they cannot handle the work. Women that do manage to reach positions near the top are often perceived as ruthless, bossy, or power-hungry for the same hardball behavior as their male counterparts when tough decisions must be made. In hiring, education, and healthcare there are many studies that show that simply changing the names of the applicants from female to male dramatically increases their chances of getting admitted to an interview, a school, or a health study.
Men and women at the top perpetuate the policies that lead to a glass ceiling (yes, women at the top can be as guilty of discriminating practices as their male counterparts.) Men and women in positions of power must work together to:
- understand the issues
- provide training
- shape policies
that ensure that their best talent, regardless of gender, makes it to the top!