If you've tried to rise through the ranks at work and — despite your qualifications — find yourself hitting what seems to be an invisible barrier, you might be confronting the glass ceiling. A term originally used to describe the challenges women face with career advancement, the glass ceiling remains an unfortunate reality in many workplaces today, blocking top jobs from deserving individuals.
The good news is that with the right resources, you can shatter the glass ceiling and get ahead to reach those top positions. In this article, we'll look at what the glass ceiling is, why it still exists, and how you can find a way to shatter it.
What Is the Glass Ceiling?
The term “glass ceiling” was originally used more than 40 years ago by a management consultant named Marilyn Loden. She coined this phrase to describe barriers to advancement that many women in business confront during their careers. During the 1980s, the term was popularized in publications like “The Working Woman Report” by Gay Bryant.
Why does the Glass Ceiling exist today?
The issue of the glass ceiling is still relevant today. Women and minorities frequently experience barriers to career advancement despite laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that require anti-discrimination practices in business. Here are some possible reasons why the glass ceiling still exists in the 21st century.
Delayed effects of the Women’s Rights Movement
When the 19th Amendment was finally made into law in 1920, it gave women in the United States the right to vote. But the gender equality movement was hardly complete.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), women today earn 78 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. The gender pay gap is even larger for African-American women and Latinas.
What's more, there are far fewer female leaders filling positions of power in large companies across the country. Only a small number of women can be found in upper-level positions with major corporations, making up less than 6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies. Similar statistics stand across the board for other C-suite and senior positions.
A tradition of women staying at home
There's been a long tradition of women staying at home while men work outside of the house. This is often because the woman has been the primary caregiver for children or perhaps elderly parents. While this paradigm has slowly shifted over the years, there are still significant gaps in the workforce.
According to some of the latest statistics, four times as many women than men stay at home with their children. While the rate of stay-at-home dads has increased about 3% over the last several years, stay-at-home moms still account for about 28% of all stay-at-home parents, a figure that has hardly changed in some 25 years.
Pregnancy discrimination is another factor when it comes to hiring and promoting women in the workplace. Although it’s illegal per the Title VII Act mentioned above, many businesses engage in this practice during the hiring (and firing) process to avoid paying women who take time away from work to raise children.
Traditional corporate culture
According to the Harvard Business Review, one of the largest liabilities businesses face is having a “lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This can lead to a host of issues including discrimination, stereotyping, and sexual harassment. The recent #MeToo movement has brought topics like this into the spotlight, spurring companies to become more accountable for behavior across the board.
Still, many companies have a culture that either inadvertently or intentionally favors the hiring and promotion of men over women. In Silicon Valley (and the U.S. in general), two-thirds of venture capital firms have no female partners.
To take a broader view, consider the Supreme Court. It took nearly 200 years for this court to have a female justice. Sandra Day O'Connor finally changed this by being the first female appointed by President Reagan in 1981. While years have passed since then, only four women total have ever served on the Supreme Court.
4 Ways to Break the Glass Ceiling
Although the glass ceiling shouldn't exist, the facts show that it does. However, there are some things you can do to work past this invisible barrier to achieve the success you want.
1. Strengthen your network
When it comes to reaching higher leadership positions, your business relationships play an integral role in how high you will go. Professional connections open you up to new opportunities. In addition to gaining support among your peers, you can learn from people in management-level positions or other roles that you aspire to reach. Having people who have “been there, done that” to guide you along your journey can provide valuable insight, direction, and growth.
Here are a few ways to start building your network:
- Develop business relationships with the right people. Rather than passing out business cards at the latest networking event, zero in on the people who can help your career. You can do this both in your current company as well as through online tools like LinkedIn. This social network can be a powerful tool for introductions, referrals, references, and connecting with people and companies that interest you.
- Give more than you take. A willingness to serve others is one of the most telling signs of a true leader. One way to demonstrate this is by offering professional assistance to your coworkers and supervisor whenever possible. Take on extra tasks and express your enthusiasm for being a team player.
- Keep in touch with your connections. Don’t be afraid to check in via phone, email, or other methods as a way to find future opportunities. Also, connect people you know with others in your network. Maybe a colleague wants an introduction to someone and you can help. Remember: people are more likely to help those who are helpful. Plus, being a connector shows that you're a valuable resource.
- Share your knowledge with others to show your value and experience. You can do this by posting on social channels, blogging, attending meet-ups, engaging with industry groups, and the like. The more you share, the more likely you are to expand your reach and become a trusted voice in your field.
2. Define clear goals
Set clear goals and work on developing the skills you need to climb the corporate hierarchy. Focus on SMART goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
By being more prepared, you can prevent potential pitfalls. However, it’s crucial to remember that no matter how hard you work, failure is an inevitable part of success. The key is to look at the kind of failure you’ve had and why it happened. Learn from your mistakes and use every setback as an opportunity to improve your decision-making and strengthen your next attempt.
3. Be your own advocate
If you want to start breaking down invisible barriers and achieve your goals, you have to be your own advocate. Here are some of the best ways to advocate for yourself:
- Create a positive reputation. Help others see your potential through hard work and dedication to your position. Maintain a positive attitude, adopt a team player mentality, and be consistent. Prove that you can work well with your coworkers, managers, and clients to develop a good name for yourself.
- Highlight your strengths (when the situation is appropriate). Recognize the valuable talents you offer your company and be willing to talk about them. When you’re sitting down with your boss for your quarterly or annual review, have facts and figures ready to demonstrate what an asset you are to the team.
- Be willing to adapt. Look for opportunities to grow and develop. Evolve into an even more efficient and valuable member of your team by making changes when things aren’t working or need to improve.
One more important note: When it comes to asking for a bump in pay, be sure you know your worth. Use the five steps in our guide on how to ask for a raise to maximize your chances of getting the salary you deserve.
4. Create your own opportunities
The glass ceiling doesn't have to hold you back from reaching the leadership role you want. One way to break through barriers is to put yourself in charge. When you start your own company, you create your own career opportunities without any organizational bias.
Yes, it can be a challenge to start a business, but becoming your own boss offers unlimited growth. What's more, resources like those at Main Street make it easier so you don't have to go it alone. You can get help from experts with training, support, marketing, and technology, allowing you to focus on other important aspects of the business.
How Will You Break Through the Glass Ceiling?
In a perfect world, everyone would have equal opportunities and be rewarded fairly for their skills and experience. But with invisible barriers like the glass ceiling, these opportunities aren’t available to everyone.
You can break through it by strengthening your network, creating measurable milestones, and advocating for yourself to show your eagerness and ability to earn an executive position in the boardroom or whatever it is you want.
On the other hand, you make your own opportunities by creating a business that puts you in charge without limitations. Learn about the Main Street process to see if being your own boss is your path to breaking the glass ceiling for good.