Certain events in recent times have impacted the way women work. During the 2nd World War, for example, labour shortages led to an increased number of female workers in the previously male-dominated metal and chemical industries (Hart 2009, p.1).
During the 1960s, the introduction of the contraceptive pill gave women more control over when, or if, they had children (Murphy 2010, p221), and those who entered the workplace in the 1970s experienced improved working conditions as a result of anti-discrimination legislations such as the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) (Morgan 1970, p.30).
However, despite these changes, women typically earn less than their male counterparts. In 2011, for example, the difference between earnings for each gender was 9.6% (Hall 2012) with this pay gap being widest for the upper income brackets, such as those encompassing senior and executive management positions, and narrowest for the lowest income brackets (Arulampalam, Botth and Bryan 2006, p.163).
In addition, individuals within senior positions are also usually male (Oakley 2000, p.321), which has led some to suggest that a “glass ceiling” hinders a woman’s career progress by acting as an invisible barrier to promotion (Cotter, Herman, Ovadia and Vanneman 2001, p.655).
This essay shall explore the concept of the glass ceiling by using case studies of successful senior women to determine whether gender still plays a role in how far an individual progresses in their career.
Examining the historical background of men and women at work provides a context within which modern day perceptions and attitudes towards each gender can be better understood.
Prior to the industrial revolution, for example, goods and services were largely produced within the home (Thane 1992, p.299). As a result, men, women, and children, worked together in a cottage industry, blurring the distinction between work and home life.
During the industrial revolution, however, factories and mills created a division of labour between work outside the home that was paid, and work inside the home that was unpaid (Vries 1994, p. 249).
Although initially both men and women worked together under the same conditions, the introduction of the Factory Act in 1833 restricted the hours worked by women and introduced compulsory schooling for children (Marvel 1977, p.379). As a result, one parent was now required to be at home to look after their child before and after school.
Since women were paid less than men (Nicholas and Oxley 2008, p.723), and now worked fewer hours, the opportunity cost of not undergoing paid work led many women to take on the role of homemaker and carer, while the male took on the role of “bread winner” by supporting his family financially (Rose 1988, p.53).
The significance of this is that by economically confining women to the home, a distinction was created between unpaid private work (e.g., housekeeping) and paid public work (e.g., factory work).
To the outside observer, this essentially rendered a woman’s work inside the home invisible, and created the perception that paid work (i.e., wage-earning) was something that was predominantly carried out by men (Ferree 1990, p.866).
Implicit within this association was the value of the work being performed by each gender, with “male” (i.e., paid) work being perceived as the most valuable due to its wage-earning, and therefore, family sustaining, ability (Acker 1990, p.139).
Furthermore, work that occurs within the public sphere is also presumed to be skilled, dependent on training, and masculine in nature. Whereas in the domestic sphere, work is generally regarded as being unskilled, not dependent on training, and feminine in nature (Fletcher 2002, p.204).
One explanation which may account for these perceptions could be due to the socialisation of gender roles via media influences (Adler, Kless and Adler 1992, p.169).
For example, masculine role models (e.g., He-Man, G.I. Joe, Superman) and feminine role models (e.g., Cinderella, Barbie, Suzy Homemaker), may have linked, through association, certain traits to each gender and reinforced the belief of a “master-servant relationship” being gender-appropriate behaviour (Wajcman 1999, p.54).
In addition, as individuals have a natural tendency to mimic (Meltzoff and Moore 1977, p.75) and model (Bandura, Ross and Ross 1961, p.575) those around them, such role models may have inadvertently served to keep the spheres created by the industrial revolution separated by gender by introducing a social norm that others can conform to (i.e., the male should be the bread-winner and not the female).
If one wishes to understand why the glass ceiling exists, or if in fact it does exist, it is therefore necessary to examine the effect of such beliefs, because according to the theory of reasoned action (Sheppard, Hartwick and Warshaw 1988, p.325), these beliefs will then influence how an individual thinks and how they behave.
The Effect of Stereotypes
A stereotype can be defined as a broad generalisation of a group, which may, or may not, be representative of an individual (Hall and Carter 1999, 350) (e.g., all Swedish women are tall, have large breasts, and are blonde).
Stereotypes help people to quickly make sense of their world by placing things into predefined categories, and in this regard, they act as a mental shortcut by allowing the application of existing information and knowledge to new situations and scenarios (Macraw, Milne and Bodenhausen, p.37).
In terms of understanding the glass ceiling, stereotypes are important because they provide an insight into the expectations that people have about the type of person suited for a given position within an organisation.
A commonly held belief, for example, is that leaders require masculine traits (e.g., assertiveness, dominance, independence) in order to lead effectively (Cann and Siegfried 1990, p.413).
Women, however, are often perceived as having traits which are not conducive to leadership (e.g., submissiveness, passivity, dependence) (Porter, Geis and Jennings 1983, p.1035). As a result, if a woman wishes to overcome the glass ceiling effect, she may also need to dissociate herself from her gender stereotype (Alexander and Andersen 1993, p.527).
One way in which this may occur is by adopting a more masculine style, but women who do so also risk being perceived as being “bossy”, “bitchy”, or “difficult”, thereby swapping one negative stereotype for another (Rhode 2003).
Interestingly, the reverse does not appear to be the case for males, as when men adopt a more feminine style, such as by coaching and nurturing rather than controlling and directing, they are perceived in a more favourable light due to their ability to better recognise and understand the emotions of others (i.e., displaying emotional intelligence) (Linstead 1995, p.192).
It is important to note, however, that there is no universal management style that is effective for either gender, as situational factors, rather than an individual’s characteristics, are what largely determine how effectively a leader is able to lead (Rutherford 2001, p.326).
The idea of “heroic leadership” (i.e., a stereotypical alpha male leader) may therefore no longer be as relevant to successful leadership as it may have once been in the past (Fletcher 2002).
This is because, in our modern day society, leadership in a business environment relies more upon one’s ability to interact and network with others (i.e., emotional intelligence), than it does upon one’s ability to physically dominate others with brute force (Barling, Slater and Kelloway 2000, p.157).
Consequently, in an age of post-heroic leadership where feminine traits (e.g., the ability to empathise, listen, and relate to others) are recognised as being important for business interactions (Rhode 2003), trying to conform solely to a stereotypical image of a male leader is unlikely to make a person a more effective leader.
And in some cases, such as with women who adopt a very masculine style, it may even hinder their ability to lead due to the negative stereotypes (e.g., “bossy”) associated with such behaviour (Hoyt and Blascovich 2007, p.595).
Women, therefore, face double standards in the workplace (Foschi 1996, p.237). If they act feminine, women tend to be liked but not respected (Rudman 2001, p.743) and are perceived as lacking the qualities required by a leader (Heilman, Block, Martell and Simon 1989, p.935).
And if they act masculine, women tend to be perceived as being aggressive, hostile, and violating gender norms (Heilman and Okimoto, p.81). To further complicate the issue, both women and men view leaders in predominantly masculine terms (Wajcman 1999, p.54), so not only do men think that men make the best leaders, but so do women (Eagly and Karau 2002, p. 573).
Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling
Despite entering the same professional and managerial ranks as males, women are typically underrepresented at top positions within large organisations as 95-97% of senior management positions are occupied by males (Oakley 2000, p.321).
Some have suggested that this may be due to the presence of a “glass ceiling” which prevents women from progressing past a certain point in their career (Baxter and Wright 2000, p.275). There are, however, examples of women who have reached the top, thereby showing that it is possible for the glass ceiling to be breached, if in fact such a barrier does exist.
Hilary Devey, for example, is chief executive of Pall-Ex delivery network (Devey 2012), an industry that is heavily male-dominated with only 23% of workers being female (Suljic 2012).
Devey has publicly stated that the idea of a glass ceiling is a “myth” and is an “excuse” used by women by justify their own failing in the business world (Glennie 2012). “If the glass ceiling did exist”, Devey claims, “then how could I have got to where I am today?…I am living proof there’s no such thing” (Glennie 2012).
Hilary Devey provides a good example of how a woman can succeed in business despite being in a male-dominated industry. However, Devey also admits that getting to the top is harder for women, and several comments made by her provide an insight into why this may be.
When Devey had her first son, for example, her employer at the time took away her company car “before we were even out of the hospital” (Ratchet 2012). Later, when trying to secure a loan to set up her own business (Pall-Ex), Devey was told by her bank manager that “You’re a woman trying to do business in a man’s world and a single parent. I’m afraid that I’m not going to give you a loan. Or an overdraft.” (Lunn 2012).
To obtain the money she needed, Devey had to sell her home, downgrade her car, and at times, she “could barely afford to eat” (Lunn 2012). Unsurprisingly, Devey also states that “The old boys network still exists in the City because there will always be men who think that women should be in the kitchen and the bedroom, and not in the boardroom. There will always be sexism.” (Ratchet 2012).
What we learn from women such as Hilary Devey is that even though, generally speaking, women may physically be the weaker sex, in a business environment, it is mental rather than physical toughness which determines how successful one becomes.
It also shows how women can encounter prejudice against them as a result of occupying a role incongruent with their gender (Garcia-Retamero and Lopez-Zafra 2006, p.51). For example, Devey was exposed to sexist comments such as “Can you drive a truck, love?” (Moya 2010) whilst working in the male-dominated distribution industry.
It is important to note, however, that such prejudice is not exclusively confined to women, as men may also encounter prejudice (e.g., being called “gay” or a “paedophile”) when occupying a gender-incongruent role (e.g., a male nurse or primary school teacher) (Decker 1986) which may account for why males are typically underrepresented in such female-dominated professions (Meadus 2007). This shows that, for both genders, gender-role stereotypes can make it more difficult to reach the top, but as shown by Devey, by no means make it impossible for one to do so.
As a result of such stereotypes, women may find it more difficult to reach senior positions within an “old boy’s network” due to a lack of access to mentoring and support (Noe 1988, p.65).
Without such access, they then lack the tacit knowledge that their male peers gain, and thus receive less advice, contacts, and support, which could have otherwise helped them to progress in their career (Rhode 2003). This may have been why, in order to break the glass ceiling, Devey had to set up her own business to become chief executive.
Furthermore, as Devey herself admits, women have to make more “personal sacrifices” (Glennie 2012) than men in order to reach the top due to the fact that they will, or could, one day bear a child.
This is a significant issue for women in the workplace, because even though an organisation may formally support (e.g., by offering part-time work or “family-friendly” schedules) a woman’s desire to bear and raise a child, there is a commonly held belief amongst women that taking advantage of such support would ultimately disadvantage their career progression (Rhode 2003).
As a result, women who choose to bear a child risk being passed over in favour of their male colleagues when new positions become available (Whittock, Edwards, McLaren and Robinson 2002, p.305).
Although, it should be noted that this is not always the case, as Yahoo! chose to hire former Google executive, Marissa Mayer, to be its new chief executive with the full knowledge that she was expecting her first child (Dell’Antonia 2012).
One may, however, be justified in questioning whether Mayer would have reached her executive position within Google had she chosen to have a child sooner than she did, and if so, would she have subsequently been in a position where Yahoo! would have even considered her for the role of chief executive?
If the glass ceiling is defined as an invisible barrier to promotion, then by that definition, it does not exist, as there are examples, such as Hilary Devey and Marissa Mayer, who show that women can reach the top.
If, however, the glass ceiling is defined as an invisible barrier that impedes promotion, then by that definition, it does exist, as women face many challenges and difficulties in the workplace simply as a result of being born one sex and not another.
Women, for example, face deeply entrenched social stereotypes which portray them as a “Suzy Homemaker” type of figure, one who is dependent on others and subservient to the dominant and providing male.
Implicit within this association are norms or standards of behaviour which govern what is, and is not, gender-appropriate behaviour. Women who violate these norms risk being perceived by others in a negative light (i.e., social disapproval), which can consequently then act as a powerful motivator to conform to those norms (Heilman 2001, p.657).
As a result, it may be the case that the reason why women are typically underrepresented in senior positions is not due to a lack of ability, or some inherent flaw, but rather due to the effect that stereotypes have on causing people, including women, to overlook what women are truly capable of. One way in which this may occur is via the effect of a stereotype threat.
A stereotype threat occurs when the belief in a given stereotype causes an individual to conform to the behaviours associated with that stereotype (Schmader 2002, p.194).
For example, when women are told that they have weaker mathematical ability than males, and then tested for performance, they typically perform worse on the test than men. But when they are told that gender does not influence test performance, they perform just as well or even better than the men (Spencer, Steele and Quinn 1998, p.4).
A similar effect has also been observed with African Americans (Steele and Aronson 1995, p.797), individuals from low socioeconomic groups (Croizet and Claire 1998, p.588), and minority groups (Nguyen and Ryan 2008, p.1314).
The significance of this is that by conforming to the stereotype of a leader being male, and not female, women may consciously or unconsciously be sabotaging their chances of career success by creating their own glass ceiling.
Future research may therefore wish to examine the effect that stereotypes have on a woman’s career progression. The progression of women who hold a belief that a glass ceiling exists, for example, could be compared to the career progression of women who do not believe that a glass ceiling exists.
If a stereotype threat is found, one may be able to increase the balance of men and women in senior positions by educating women about the challenges they are likely to face, and also by showing them examples of women who have succeeded in business (i.e., positive exemplars).
Stereotypes, however, are only part of the problem if a woman also wishes to have children. As unless an organisation supports a woman’s maternal leave in a way that does not harm her future career prospects (i.e., entitlement to benefits or opportunity for promotion), then women will always be disadvantaged in the workplace and the glass ceiling will always remain.
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Reviewed – 27th March 2016