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Nudging the Glass Ceiling
Over one hundred and twenty years ago, women first began working outside the home in
increasing numbers. By the turn of the century, more than twenty-five percent of all women
were employed outside the home (Smith, 1993). Even though the majority of these women were
unmarried, widowed with children or had been abandoned by their husbands and left with
children to support alone, they were still considered immoral, unfeminine, and unfit or negligent
mothers. These women were paid considerably less than their male counter parts because of the
popular opinion that they should find a man to support them and their families. At this time in
history, women were not given the chance to become supervisors or executives because of the
sterotypical beliefs that women were incapable of long term job commitment due to child
rearing and that women were not aggressive enough to maintain control of corporations and
According to Bob Adams (1993), author of the Glass Ceiling, and supported by statistics
obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “women currently make up more than fifty-seven
percent of the labor force. Yet, because of an invisible barrier, women have only five or six
percent of the higher management jobs” (p. 939).
This invisible barrier, the “glass ceiling” was first given currency by the Wall Street
Journal in 1986. Since that time, the term has been used to describe the barriers that prevent
women from advancing to the top in business, labor, government, acadamia, and other
institutions throughout the American work place (Adams, 1993, p. 939).
The “glass ceiling” is a form of discrimination in the work place. Although practices and
policies that create this barrier are often not as obvious as other forms of discrimination, they are
just as effective in denying
employment and economic opportunities for women.
There are many rationalizations for the justification of the “glass ceiling”. This writer
sees the “ceiling” as a roof. Roofs were built to protect as well as to keep people under. Men
have long felt a need to protect women because women were deemed to be “the weaker sex”.
Biologically, the female of the species has always been protected so that the species could
procreate. Since women have begun moving up the corporate ladder, parallel to their male
associates, they have also begun suffering from the same medical dilemmas that predominantly
men have suffered with for years. These maladies include hypertension, strokes, heart disease,
and more reoccurrent cases of cancer. Is it possible that women were to be protected from these
Throughout history, protection has also been used to disguise discrimination. If a person
is told that they are not allowed to be equal to someone else because it is for their own
protection, then they are not being discriminated against, simply protected for their own well
History has also proven that if a species is left alone, to their own devises, they will
indeed succeed and prosper.
Among other opinions held by some male executives is that women have not been in the
work pipeline long enough to have “paid their dues”. These men also feel that women will
eventually evolve into executives, but only after they have served their time (Naff, 1994, p.509).
Other conceivable reasons for the “glass ceiling”, as cited by Dena Bunis, show some
different perspectives for the causes. These causes include the fact that women managers are
being passed over in favor of men for special assignments and projects that would get them
Additional justifications for the barrier could include the fact that women are not being
included in networking activities such as golf games and informal dinners (Bunis, 1991, p.2).
The fact that American corporations are largely inhabited and run by white males,
demonstrates the sociological and psychological phenomenon that the human race tends to
associate with, hire, and promote people who look and act the same as them (Bunis, 1991, p.2).
Other reasons for discrimination, as alluded to by Adams, are that women are reluctant to
relocate for the sake of their career; that a woman’s style of leadership is not suited to the
executive suite; that a woman’s natural role is that of the nurturing and supporting gender and are
more predisposed to the career areas of teachers, nurses, secretaries, and
homemakers/housewives (Adams, 1993, p.944).
Women who have been or who are affected by the “glass ceiling” have very little
recourse with the nation’s labor unions. Among the nation’s 16.4 million union members, thirty-
eight percent are women. However, only three women sit on the thirty-nine member Executive
Council of the AFL-CIO (Adams, 1993, p.946). How can women expect or hope for help from
an organization which has its own internal problems with the “glass ceiling”?
There are several actions which can be adapted to remedy the dilemma of the “glass
ceiling”. Foremost, it is important that individual agencies examine their own employment data
to see whether there are particular areas where women are being promoted at a lower rate than
men. Agencies should also audit the criteria, formal or informal, that are being used in selecting
employees for advancement. The agencies should ask themselves if these criteria are really job
related and are they having an adverse impact on women (Adams, 1993, p.513)?
Next, managers should examine the ways in which they are evaluating employees and
look at what assumptions they may be making about whether one employee seems to have more
advancement potential than another. They should look for stereotypes and seek to curtail them.
Managers are obligated to think about whom they are selecting for a career-enhancing
assignment and who they are asking to coordinate the office Christmas party and make coffee
(Adams, 1993, p.513).
Ultimately, women should take advantage of opportunities to demonstrate their abilities.
Data shows that more women than men have found such experiences as developmental
assignments, the opportunity to “act” in a position prior to appointment to it, and formal
development programs or managerial training to have been very helpful in their careers. These
activities can help to break down stereotypes by showing that women have broader capabilities
and commitment than they are often given credit for (Adams, 1993, p.513).
Progress in denting or chipping the “glass ceiling” is likely to continue, but no sudden
breakthroughs are expected. Women in middle-management will continue to push toward the
top. Some will break through. Others will encounter frustrating obstacles. Those blocked by the
“glass ceiling” will increasingly follow their peers out the door to start businesses of their own.
Women need to continue to try to persuade the labor unions and businesses that shunting aside
talented women is a shot in the foot – and the pocketbook. As global competition increases and
the “baby bust” depletes the work force, women will be a major source of management skill.
Possibly the biggest push will come from the wives and daughters of male executives.
As these women hit the “glass ceilings” in their own companies, law firms, or universities, they
will tell their husbands and fathers about it. Current trends in education means that these young
women are now coming home with their own MBAs.
To continue to lose talented women hurts the organization severely. At a time when
female customers are making more buying decisions than ever before, a company without a
diverse work force is at a crippling disadvantage. In other words, “…grab a male-dominated
company by its bottom line, and its hearts and minds will surely follow” (Lawlor, 1994, p.87).
The bad news about the “glass ceiling” is that it is much lower than anyone thought and
that unless there is a continued and concentrated look, it will not just melt. It will not just break.
It will not just shatter. Women must keep pushing!
Adams, B. (1993). The Glass Ceiling. CQ Reasearcher, Vol.3, No. 40, 937-960
Bunis, D. (1991). The Glass Ceiling. Newsday (Long Island, N.Y.)
Lawlor,J. (1994). Exodus. Working Woman, Vol. 19, No. 11, 38-41+
Naff, K. C. (1994). Through the Glass Ceiling: Prospects for the Advancement of Women in the Federal Civil
Service. Public Adminstration Review, Vol. 54, No. 6, 507-514
Saltzman, A. ( 1991). Trouble at the Top. U.S. News & World Report. June 17, 1991. 40+
Smith, R.E. The Subtle Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute, 1979
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