“The “glass ceiling” is a concept that betrays America’s most cherished principles. It is the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder regardless of their qualifications or achievements. The American Dream is about opportunities for all” (dol.gov).
This case study will explore women in the workplace and the barriers to their advancement into executive level employment. Diversity, inclusion and deliberative democracy theory will be used to better understand the glass ceiling movement and to exploit potential solutions. The timeline of events including women entering the workforce, public policy, women’s education, and changing business practices will help readers to better understand the glass ceiling and some of the biases that exist today.
During World War II women entered the workforce in large numbers. They were doing their part as Americans to support the war effort. Jobs that had been traditionally thought of as men’s work (manufacturing and production) were now being held by women. After the war it was assumed that women would return to their pre-war status as housewives and homemakers. However, many women found agency in their newly established careers and wanted to continue to utilize and expand their newly acquired skill sets. Women would soon find out that there are many barriers to gainful employment.
Help wanted ads were segregated by gender. Most opportunities available to women were entry level positions such as low paying secretarial jobs that offered no room for advancement. This “catch-all” personal assistant position was often referred to as a “Girl Friday”. Many women attended college, where the pressure to find a husband often times took precedence over obtaining an education. Even with a college degree, discrimination against women in the workplace and roadblocks to advancement were widespread. Setting the stage for the glass ceiling―”so subtle that it is transparent, yet so strong that it prevents women from moving up the corporate hierarchy” (Morrison).
THEORY INFLECTED ANALYSIS
President Kennedy moved the issue of discrimination against women in the workplace from the personal sphere to the technical sphere when in 1961 he formed the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. In 1963 the commission provided a report that cited widespread discrimination against women in the workplace. The commission’s findings created an exigence that elevated the conversation into the public sphere. Ozanne et al state, “From a public policy standpoint, deliberative democracy attempts to increase the legitimacy of decisions by carefully considering the demands of conflicting groups, to broaden participants’ understanding on issues of common interest, to increase respect for differences based on values, and to develop policy positions that can endure sustained critical examination” (Ozanne et al, 29). This is demonstrated when on July 2, 1964 President Linden Johnson signed into effect the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which “prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal” (www.ourdocuments.gov). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin” and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to oversee the enforcement of Title VII (eeoc.gov). Ozanne et al caution that “one of the greatest challenges that democracies currently face is to ensure civic respect and accommodate diversity”, a point that would soon be challenged (Ozanne et al, 31). Right from the beginning the EEOC posed a pragmatic paradox. One of the directors of the EEOC called Title VII “a fluke” (Freidman, 290). How could a commission established to enforce new legislation be effective when leadership did not believe the law was legitimate? Early actions of the EEOC proved that the commission was not going to uphold the law, turning down complaint after complaint. In addition, the commission lacked diversity, composed primarily of white men and one very young African-American woman, Aileen Hernandez. In a recent television interview, Hernandez said that she left the EEOC because it became clear that they were not interested in action (Makers).
Working mother, Lorena Weeks, would put Title VII to the test―Lorena W. Weeks, Appellant, v. Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Company. After 19 years of employment, Ms. Weeks applied for a switchman position, but was turned down and told that the job was reserved for men, even though the company’s seniority policy clearly identified Lorena as the appropriate candidate to fill the position. Stohl and Cheney state that “there is a natural tendency to try to preserve the things we value” (368). In this case the preservation of “men’s work” and the value placed on seniority. However, Stohl and Chaney caution that “the actions of the very people who want to preserve the system sometimes undermine it” (368). As seen with the company’s willingness to overlook Ms. Week’s seniority. In court proceedings Southern Bell would argue that the position required the ability to frequently lift 30-pounds, a requirement Southern Bell deemed too strenuous for women. This point was quickly disputed when it became clear that women had no trouble lifting their 32 pound typewriters. After years of appeals, Lorena Weeks finally won her case and was awarded $31,000 in back pay along with the switchman’s position (wikipedia.org). Ozanne et al point out that “Personal narratives allow emotional and often alarming evidence to be brought into deliberative spaces to shape decision-making” (Ozanne et al, 37). Her victory was a long time in the making, but Ms. Weeks personal story of discrimination and subsequent triumph paved that way for other women to stand up for themselves and take action. Action that ultimately helped to chip away at the glass ceiling.
The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (1991-1996) was established in an effort to protect women of all races and ethnicities, including African-American, American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, and Hispanic American men. The commission strived to mandate information regarding any barriers, opportunities, policies, perceptions, and practices that effect any and all genders, races, and ethnicities. In order to follow these procedures, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission followed and adhered to the rules of the Glass Ceiling Act (Section 204 of Public Law 102-166)
“1. Examine the preparedness of women and minorities to advance to management and decision-making positions in business;
- Examine the opportunities for women and minorities to advance to management and decision-making positions in business;
- Conduct basic research into the practices, policies, and manner in which management and decision-making positions in business are filled;
- Conduct comparative research of businesses and industries in which women and minorities are promoted to management and decision-making positions, and business and industries in which women and minorities are not promoted to management and decision-making positions;
- Compile a synthesis of available research on programs and practices that have successfully led to the advancement of women and minorities to management and decision-making positions in business including training programs, rotational assignments, developmental programs, reward programs, employee benefit structures, and family leave policies;
- Examine any other issues and information relating to the advancement of women and minorities to management and decision-making positions in business (Good For Business)”
As of March of 1995, the American labor force was still segregated, specifically in gender and race. A majority of white males were placed in top management positions in corporations and businesses. According to surveys from Fortune, out of the 1500 companies that took part in the survey, 95% to 97% of senior managers, vice-presidents and other higher status positions were white men.
“The survey also showed that 95 percent of the three to five percent of the top managers who were women were white non-Hispanic women” (Good For Business). The survey also suggested that less than 10% of the largest employers have women on their board of directors. The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission findings suggested that organizations that excel at leveraging diversity (including hiring and promoting minorities and women into senior positions) can experience better financial performance in the long run than those which are not effective in managing diversity. Their findings are supported by Yang and Konrad’s observation “that firms with more diversity management practices in place experienced lower levels of turnover and that diversity management practices interacted positively with an innovation strategy, resulting in higher productivity and better market performance” (Yang & Konrad, 21).
The National Glass Ceiling Commission is a nonpartisan board, which is composed of notable and experienced professionals. The board provides unbiased reflection on national trends in numerous companies and marketplaces. Using the expertise of the knowledgeable professionals on the board, they determine and measure the degree to which women and people of color are utilized in any organization. According to The National Glass Ceiling Commission, since 1994, organizations that excel at the hiring and advancement of women and minorities into senior management jobs experience better performance over time than those which are not effective in managing” (National Glass Ceiling). “The National Glass Ceiling Commission works closely with the National Women’s Council, an organization that is dedicated to making a noteworthy impact on the social advancement of women by promoting economic empowerment, international women’s rights, political equality, workplace equality, and women’s health” (National Glass Ceiling Commission); The boards promotes and endorses fair hiring and career development practices of women, focusing on breaking the Glass Ceiling and cultivating equal workplaces where all employees, no matter their race, gender or ethnicity, are valued. The National Glass Ceiling Commission has a vision and a mission in order for the board to be effective:
“Vision: To see diversity and inclusion set as a business standard, and to develop communities and workplaces that value all people equally for their individual contributions.
Mission: We seek to encourage organizations to develop, implement, and sustain diversity and inclusion policies and practices through active advocacy, campaigns, and career development opportunities” (National Glass Ceiling Commission).
“Simply engaging multiple stakeholders in deliberation does not guarantee that public policy or business practices will change” (Ozanne et al, 37). This point is demonstrated by the myriad of public policy and organizations (Civil Rights Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, National Glass Ceiling Commission, National Women’s Council) that have helped to shape the discourse and move the needle on equality towards women in the workplace, however, business practices have been slow to change, especially at the executive level.
Over the years an increasing number of women have entered the workforce. According to Catalyst.org, “In 2015, there were 73,510,000 women aged 16 and over in the labor force, representing 46.8% of the total labor force”. Women have made great strides in obtaining management positions, in fact, “More Than Half of Management Occupations Are Held by Women. In 2015, women held 51.5% of all management, professional, and related occupations and 43.6% of the subcategory management, business, and financial operations occupations” (catalyst.org). This is seemingly good news, but women are less represented in higher level positions. Take for example catalyst.org’s findings on women in upper level positions at S&P 500 companies (which is very representative of women in upper level positions across the United States). S&P 500 CEOs are composed of less than 6% women, a shockingly low percentage when you consider that close to half of the management positions are being filled by women. Although women are earning degrees at a faster rate than men, they are still not making headway in attaining executive level placements. “For the class 2013-2014, women earned more than half of bachelor’s degrees (57.1%), master’s degrees (59.9%), and doctorate degrees (51.8%)” yet the number of women in the upper echelon is dismal at best (catalyst.org). Clearly there are barriers to these senior level positions, but just as the name implies, they are hard to see.
According to a recent study, Women in the Workplace 2016, gender equity is considered a top priority, however, upper level workplace outcomes do not seem to support this claim which may imply that companies are not managing diversity effectively. Anand and Winters believe that “diversity learning should be integrated, ongoing, relevant, applicable, and based on solid needs assessment (Anand and Winters, 362). This means that diversity efforts need to be more than just a one-off sensitivity and/or compliance based training session. For example, Sodexo, a food and facilities-management services company makes diversity and inclusion part of their core business strategy and culture. This is achieved “through a top down and bottom up strategy, which includes senior level commitment, robust metrics and accountability through an incentive compensation link, grassroots engagement through their employee affinity groups, and incorporating diversity and inclusion in all business and HR practices and policies” (Anand and Winters, 364). In their assessment of Sodexo’s diversity competencies, Anand and Winters point out that Sodexo has “developed management practices that drive hiring and promotion and foster the retention of talent” and “leverage diversity as a competitive advantage” all in an effort to “achieve Sodexo’s business goals and objectives” (Anand and Winters, 364). So why are more companies not doing this?
Betsy Myers, Founding Director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University suggests that instead of looking at new initiatives and training programs, the next step should be “an admission that we have a flawed workplace model that needs to be addressed and modernized” (fortune.com). The paradox of design addresses the system surrounding worker participation. It “Suggests that most organizations eliminate from any influential position the very people whom the design is supposed to empower” Stohl and Cheney, 361). Women’s perspective is silenced as company policies are typically established by the upper echelon which is currently dominated by white males. Myers attests that unless we make changes to the current “overwork model” which values “long hours, frequent relocation and unyielding adherence to policy for its own sake” women will never have the same access to promotion as men. Myers proposes a system that rewards productivity, urging employers to base evaluation and promotion on this new metric―“Does the employee meet or surpass the goals she or he agreed to?” (fortune.com).
Author Merida L. Johns, PhD, RHIA offers insight into barriers for advancement as well. Her findings are somewhat similar Myers’. Johns argues that “lack of a flexible work schedule” is a primary impediment to advancement (perspectives.ahima.org). Women are typically primary caregivers. When factoring in young children and aging parents this responsibility is often times maintained throughout a woman’s career. The current masculine based employment model penalizes women that choose to pause their careers for family, disrupting their forward momentum. This antiquated model can prevent companies from attracting and retaining the best talent, reduce a company’s creative ability and increase problematic issues such as groupthink (Mazur, 9). Mazur also points out that “multicultural organizations tend to possess more organizational flexibility, and are better able to adapt to changes” (Mazur, 9). This means that organizations that are willing to break the mold and to think outside of the box when it comes to issues of work/life balance, will have a sustained competitive advantage. Yang and Konrad cite “Cox’s model of the multicultural organization…organizations must allow employees to bring their entire set of identities to work rather than requiring employees to suppress important identities in order to assimilate to the dominant organizational culture” (Yang and Konrad, 7). This traditional approach to employment advancement that Johns and Myers speak of does not allow women to bring their true selves to work. A practice that stifles creativity and limits the opportunities for alternative solutions. This exclusionary model demands that women make a choice between career advancement and their families, creating a scenario where no one wins.
A Success Story
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg offers an excellent example of the glass ceiling and its effects on her career. Ginsburg obtained her first degree from Cornell in 1954 (BA) at age 21. She faced several instances of discrimination in the workplace, such as demotion for becoming pregnant, being paid less because her husband had a good paying job, and being passed over for a clerkship specifically because of her sex.
In 1956, she enrolled at Harvard Law School and was one of nine women out of 500 in the class. She transferred to Columbia Law School where she was the first woman to be on two major law reviews, both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review. She earned her law degree from Columbia and tied for first in her class. During her first professorship at Rutgers Law School in 1963, she was one of fewer than 20 female law professors in the country and received tenure there in 1969 (www.harvardgazette.com).
Despite discriminatory setbacks in her career, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shattered the glass ceiling when she was sworn in as an Associate Justice to the Supreme Court of the United States of America in 1993―taking her seat at the table of the highest court in America.
In regards to her opinions, none speaks more to the Glass Ceiling than her boisterous dissent on the case Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 681 (2007). Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear for pay discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 5-4 decision, the majority effectively sided with the employer, stating a statute of limitations had run out for filing suit. Ginsberg reacted to the absurdity of the decision by reading her dissent aloud from the bench (www.huffingtonpost.com).
She continued her dissent by calling on Congress to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Ultimately, her persuasive discourse moved newly elected President Barack Obama to sign into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. This law makes it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims. Ginsburg is credited with inspiring the law.
A personal favorite story regarding Justice Ginsburg is her penchant for wearing collars with her robe. She has a closet full of different collars. In her most notorious of ways, she also has a ‘dissenting collar’ that she will wear under robe as her way of dissenting silently on days were rulings will be delivered.
Pink News did a great little write-up about her collars and specifically about her dissenting collar. The day after Trump took office there were no rulings scheduled, yet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wore her dissenting collar publicly.
USA Today penned an article highlighting the nine most notorious of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quotes. Ladies and gentlemen, the notorious RBG…..
Ginsburg on the importance of powerful women in male-dominated spaces:
“I always thought that there was nothing an antifeminist would want more than to have women only in women’s organizations, in their own little corner empathizing with each other and not touching a man’s world. If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.” —in a 2009 interview with The New York Times
Here’s to pulling the levers…
The Glass Ceiling exists to this day. It is still unseen, yet unbreachable. We know that promotion in business can still have a downward effect on females specifically. Women gain more of the degrees, yet hold a fraction of the upper most levels of management. We see the emergence in understanding of the gender inequality that plagues companies and how it can also have a downward effect on their bottom line. However, in the race to attract the best talent – businesses are recognizing the importance of diversity as not only a bottom line data point, but as environment in which innovation drives promotion and is accessible to all. It’s interesting that initiatives to address this injustice were not instituted until there was data that claimed business net profit could be increased by adopting a more diversity-friendly outlook. It’s great that businesses see the need to create a work environment more flexible to the talent, as opposed to vice versa. It’s sad that they didn’t do it out of the humanity it takes to have empathy for another human.
The results were somewhat expected as we knew the Glass Ceiling to exist and have faced challenges inspired by its existence, however it was unexpected that the systematic change in business operations to include diversity as a core mission and vision has come to the forefront in a relatively short period of time. It seems that larger companies are able to or willing to act quicker on items such as this. Could this be because of the freedom we have to gain knowledge immediately? Do companies need to react at a quicker pace to address societal argument? You bet your sweet potato, they do. Employees are now demanding this. Work-Life balance is the fundamental selling point for most of the younger work force. The old adage ‘time is money’ has been inverted to ‘money is time’. The pendulum has swung.
As we look out over the expanse of the business world, we still see those who should hold that corner office, but don’t. We see those sitting in the corner office, that shouldn’t. This is true across genders. However, don’t forget…locating that corner office, doing what needs to be done to get that corner office and moving into that corner office is a path that all people, regardless of gender, should be able to count on as the path moving forward. If we are to strive to claim equality, we must identify that inequality exists – and address it. Where stereotypes once lived, the skeletal remains of a power structure created by said stereotypes fight to hold on. Are we there yet? No. Will we be? Inevitably. Will the battle ever cease? Our answer to that – will inequality ever cease?
We learned that the path behind us is paved with sleepless nights, missing bedtimes, standing up in the face of pure anger and hatred and still…still standing up. We cannot stop. We cannot rest. We must stand, we must fight.
As Hillary Clinton gracefully conceded the 2016 election to Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, she provided the following words of encouragement to the next generation of glass ceiling shatterers:
Inequality of any kind must be eradicated.
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