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Gender Equality

Have you heard of the term "glass ceiling"? Look at the illustration and discuss with a partner what it suggests.

The Glass Ceiling

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The Invisible Barrier

Fannie Hurst, an American writer, once stated, “a woman has to be twice as good as a man, to go half as far.” This may still be true, but less so than a mere decade or two ago. What Fannie Hurst described is something that later has become known as the glass ceiling. Often, when we read about women in professional life, we come across this expression. It is a metaphorical term. Nevertheless, many women who find themselves bumping their heads on it find it very real indeed. But what does it mean?

The “glass ceiling” refers to an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities in society from achieving professional success and reaching the upper levels of the corporate ladder. It is a way of describing whatever keeps women from achieving power and success equal to that of men. The “ceiling” implies that there is a limit as to how far someone can climb the corporate ladder. Furthermore, it is made of glass, implying that it is transparent, enabling a woman to see the people above her in more powerful positions. However, when trying to achieve the same success, she is stopped by invisible forces that prevent her from rising further.

The Barrier in Practice

In theory, nothing prevents women from rising as high as men. In practice, on the other hand, the ceiling has turned out to be a tough barrier to shatter. In professional life, women have had to stumble over hindrances that never existed for their male counterparts. One of the practical glass ceiling problems has for example been that many traditional male jobs have been slow to open up to women. Only 20 years ago you would not find many female electricians or car mechanics, let alone stock brokers or pilots. Today, even though they are still a minority, the numbers are slowly increasing and girls are encouraged to enter into this male dominated universe. Also, some organizations have operated with unequal pay rates for men and women, even though this is illegal by law (Equal Pay Act: USA, 1963 and Britain, 1970). A related problem is that women often feel that they lose out on professional opportunities if they take maternity leave. Staying away from work for weeks, months or even years will often affect both pay and responsibilities in the work place.

Career vs. Children

Some women activists tend to put all the blame for the gender gap in working life on men, claiming that there is a male conspiracy to keep women out of top positions. They assert that men feel threatened by up-and-coming women with a high level of education and high ambitions. However, this is challenged by others who claim that the glass ceiling exists mostly because women choose to focus more of their time on family. This makes it impossible to dedicate as much time to their career. Many women feel the pressure of combining childcare with career aspirations. This is not something that employers can expect women to change – after all, women will continue to have children in the future. However, some people have suggested that if the large organizations want to nurture the talents of their best female employees, they may have to take a good look at some of the regulations, traditions and unwritten rules among senior management in their companies. In most modern families today both parents work, and in most of these families women still have the greatest responsibility when it comes to childcare commitments. But since few senior positions offer flexibility around working hours, a woman’s career is often restricted. Flexible hours is one of the things that could help women on their way up the corporate ladder.

Ambition and Gender

A UK survey from 2011 showed that 73% of female managers believed that the glass ceiling still existed for women seeking senior management and board-level positions. In contrast, only 38% of men believed that such a barrier existed. The same survey showed that the managerial career aspirations among men were much higher at every stage of working life than those of women. For example, among the under 30s, 45% of men and 30% of women said they expected to become managers or leaders some time during their career. This gap in ambition was obvious in all age groups that were represented in the study. (Report from The Guardian Glass Ceiling Still Exists).

Women Decision Makers

Another problem is that very few women are represented on corporate boards around the world. This is where strategic decisions are made and where the members have a chance to influence the future direction of the company. It is believed that corporate boards perform better when they include the best people with a range of perspectives and backgrounds. It is therefore important that the boards are made up of highly qualified people with a mix of skills, experiences and backgrounds. Today, many boardrooms around the world mainly consist of middle-aged men, and very few women are present. The number of female board members in the largest companies in the USA is 15% ( Female Board Members, US 2010), in Britain 13% ( Female Board Members, UK 2011), while the average number for Europe as a whole is 12% ( Female Board Members, Europe 2010).

But things are happening. In Norway, a new law was introduced in 2008, making it compulsory for all public companies that were listed on the Oslo stock exchange to appoint at least 40% women to their management boards. Companies that did not comply with this new law of positive discrimination, risked being shut down. Sentiments have been strong, but today most companies are in compliance with the law. Spain and France have also introduced new legislation, demanding a 40% quota within 2015 and 2018 respectively. This kind of affirmative action has provoked a vital debate about women and work in many countries, but so far there are few signs that the USA or Britain will follow suit in the near future.

Tasks and Activities

The Glass Ceiling - Tasks

Further Reading

The Right to Decide

Sist oppdatert 13.11.2018
Skrevet av Karin Søvik


Current debates in the English-speaking world