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Are glass ceilings a reality?

by Olivia Henson, Career Coach

Are companies limiting their talent from progressing?

Staring through the glass ceiling is a metaphorical statement used to refer to when a qualified person still remains in his or her present position. Many companies are filled with a tacit inequality that suppresses the aspirations of many people; mainly women, but also minority groups and the disabled.

What factors are at play?

Inequalities in work-life balance, wage gap, lack of role models in leadership positions, or lack of corporate policies to support advancement of these groups in the workplace are all factors forward-thinking companies are seeking to work upon. It is easy to forget that unless you develop your human resources to reach potential, you are not promoting your competitive advantage.

Considering some of these systemic hindrances, more and more of those facing a lack of opportunity consider entrepreneurship, in lieu of climbing corporate ladders where they have little to no control over their aspirations. This doesn’t come without a range of risks, that either can or cannot be controlled, so it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.

The biggest problem with these glass ceilings is that one rarely knows they are there until one reaches that point. In other words, many employees are unfortunately victims of this cynical attitude of those that place these glass ceilings there, because they rarely know about it until they are there.

Then, there is the glass escalator. While women climb the ladder in female-dominated professions, their male peers glide past them on an invisible escalator, shooting straight to the top. Men that enter female-dominated professions tend to be promoted at faster rates than women in those professions. And one way or the other, these men are skyrocketing to the top of their career.


I hadn’t even heard of this until it was mentioned in a forum I subscribe to and a week after a lady I was coaching talked about her experience of missing out on a promotion. That got me thinking. Surely, we need to think of some ways we can work on real barriers, and/or take more control over what we see as out-dated thinking.

The issue is, that unless these barriers are addressed, companies are very likely to lose talent who will ultimately leave and progress their careers elsewhere.

Tips to Reduce Your Glass Ceiling

You need to realise that nobody has the right to limit the height you can, or are able, to attain. You can play one of two strategies. The first is to ramp up your game plan. The second one is to remove barriers to upwards movement. Both can be difficult.

1. Create a value for yourself, but be realistic. With the first choice, aim for what you think you are capable of. That means being realistic about your strengths, capability levels and supportive behaviours. One of the secrets behind overcoming glass ceilings is to be vital. Update your skills, build internal relationships with key stakeholders, and be involved in cross-functional projects. You must develop your own career plan and execute the plan in order to maximise wins and minimise losses. That means while you are working for your organisation to help it accomplish its mission (Performance), you must work on yourself to be prepared for more responsibility via promotion (Image and Exposure). This is about self-awareness and self-management. Performance is the common denominator in the promotion process. If your performance is average or sub-standard, then your image and exposure, no matter how positive, will not secure you a promotion. Achieving an outstanding performance appraisal is vital if you are to progress, but it is exposure has the greatest impact on your career. It is exposure that brings us face to face with the fact that this is a people game. Just like Steve Martin puts it, "Be so good that they can't ignore you."

2. Talk about it with company decision-makers and offer positive ways of reducing or eliminating the barrier. This focuses on the second option. Whenever you see an opportunity to discuss this issue, grab it and refuse to let go until you have definitely have supporting evidence of the issue or attitude. Endeavour to make things right by talking your way through your own experience, with policy-makers, business leaders and the HR department. Make it essential that the issue is tackled, but don't come across as a pain in the proverbial ass!

3. Become part of the solution. Continuing with the second option, once you've pointed out the ways the company has refused to reduce this glass wall, make suggestions about how it can be put right. Pitch ideas with like-minded colleagues. Explain how other companies have benefited from behaving differently and back up your claims with research. The more you can prove your willingness to be involved, the more you’ll be seen as loyal and supporting company growth and advancement.

4. Don’t allow negative attitudes or toxic behaviour stop your dreams. Report any discriminatory or derogatory behaviour to help the company understand why it isn’t acceptable. If processes are truly limiting, do your research. There are other many companies who are forward-thinking. Check out those with strong positive views on diversity; you can easily pick up how they come across culturally in newsletters and websites. Leave, but ensure your leave on good terms, and continue your advancement elsewhere.

5. Consider the role of sponsor or mentor. Let's go back to the first option as a final point. For some, the ability to move into the next level up is often dependent upon securing a sponsor who will pull that person to the next level when they see a potential mentee speaking the necessary higher language. Finding a mentor is a solution to personal development and job progression, especially in this age of diversity. Be clear about the role of a mentor as opposed to coach. It is a completely different relationship!

Moving Upwards May Be at a Cost!

This is true within most large organisations. There are costs in work/life balance for many and you'll find that support tails off nearer the top, and it can be a lonely place. Your external network becomes a sounding board, rather than ex-colleagues further down in the organisation, so go out and nurture that network.

For some, the inevitable dues that are in store by moving up into the higher echelons of business can be too much. If they are too much for you and you make a decision to contribute at your current level, you should be content to stay at your level of attainment. Just stay current and relevant!

Sharing Experiences & Suggestions

I'm keen to hear about your experiences, challenges and successes. Feel free to comment and share your own suggestions!

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