Skip to main content

Columbia Business Monthly

Breaks in the Glass Ceiling

Oct 12, 2018 10:49AM ● By Kathleen Maris

By Carole Sox, Ph.D., CHE, DES

Director of the Hospitality, Tourism and Event Management Program, Columbia College

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the glass ceiling is “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions.”

While the general position of women has improved in the labor force — and momentum has been gained in labor force participation and salary opportunities — progress has also stagnated, especially in the number of women in top management positions.

According to the 2017 Women in the Workplace study, women are underrepresented at all levels of corporate America, regardless of the fact that women continue to outpace men in the number of degrees earned. 

The report also states that women of color get promoted even more slowly and face even greater obstacles, many of which are due to having less support from managers along the way.

Catalyst, a group that researches women and work, has recently reported that the number of women who hold CEO positions within S&P 500 companies has dropped to about 26, roughly 5 percent of CEO positions within these companies. The group also notes that 12 of these 500 companies do not have any female board members.

While these numbers indicate a significant need to include more qualified women in upper-level management positions, there are some who still disagree.

While 74 percent of companies surveyed reported that top-level management is highly committed to gender diversity, less than 50 percent of employees said that gender diversity is a priority for upper-level management. Combined, these two facts indicate there may be a disparity in how gender diversity is practiced within the workplace.

There have been suggested various reasons as to why the disparity is so large between the number of men and women who hold leadership positions within the workforce. One reason that has been explored is the notion that women receive less interaction and advice from senior managers and leaders within their companies on how to advance within their companies and/or in their fields. Research has shown that individuals who interact with upper management are more likely to aspire and be promoted to executive positions.

In response to these ideas, one area that has been explored is mentorship for women in the workforce. Studies have shown that those being mentored consistently receive more promotions and higher pay, but previous statistics show mentoring still appears to be gender-biased. 

There has also been debate over mentor relationships versus sponsor relationships in the workforce. 

In 2013, after economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett conducted a two-year study exploring this subject, she published her findings in the book "Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor". Within the study, mentors and sponsors were defined in the following ways: “Mentors act as a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, offering advice as needed and support and guidance as requested; they expect very little in return. Sponsors, in contrast, are much more vested in their protégés, offering guidance and critical feedback because they believe in them.”

Companies and organizations can invest in all of their employees by creating and supporting mentorship and sponsorship programs. In order to have productive programs, companies should provide training to all participants covering the goals of these programs, available resources, and expectations. Check-points can then be offered throughout the program to share tips and best practices with participants.  Additional training and reinforcement should be offered to all participating parties throughout the program. Companies should also consider offering incentives for participation.

If managed and facilitated accordingly, some of the outcomes include better decision-making and leadership skills, improved self-confidence, increased job satisfaction, more promotions, and higher salaries.

Female leadership should be encouraged and valued within companies. Organizations should be invested in changing company cultures and practices so that all employees can reach their full potential.

Is the glass ceiling breaking? It appears a crack is definitely visible, but we still have a ways to go.