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The Hard Truth of the Glass Ceiling

By: Hayley Morris

The glass ceiling is a phrase that permeates modern media and is impossible to avoid when discussing women in the workplace. Defined by Merriam-Webster as, “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions,” the issue of the glass ceiling has been a long discussed issue by feminist organizations and politicians alike. In S&P 500 companies, women make up only 26.5% of executive and senior-level managerial positions and 5% of CEOs as of 2019. When factoring in race, the numbers become even more skewed. In 2018, 32.6% of all managerial positions were held by white women, while latinas held 6.2%, black women held 3.8%, and asian women held only 2.4%.¹

And while the wage gap between men and women has decreased significantly in the past thirty years or so, from women making 64% of what men earned in 1980 to making 85% of what men earned in 2018, this progress has stunted significantly in the past several years,² and it’s not due to a lack of political intervention. Just this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reintroduced the Paycheck Fairness Act, aimed at strengthening equal pay protections for women. Politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna S. Pressley have spoken out about breaking workplace barriers. The government isn’t shying away from tackling the issues of the gender gap. So what’s the driving force behind the inability of women to catch up in the workplace?

The answer can be found in the societal norms and stereotypes women are introduced to as young girls. Growing up, it is standard practice to instill the idea of the male as the dominant sex and to teach women they are physically and emotionally inferior. Girls must be home before dark, while their brothers can stay out late. Girls are more physically and emotionally fragile, while boys are more level-headed. If a woman accepts a compliment or takes pride in an achievement, she is vain and stuck-up, while if she deflects it she is weak and insecure. And if women are assertive, are stubborn, and do disagree, they’re often labelled as the “B” word. In many societies, sons are preferred over daughters. Parents will choose to send their sons to college rather than their daughters because they believe the males will be able to earn more for the family. Women grow up with the societal notion that they are the weaker counterpart to males.

All of these factors contribute to a persisting issue: many women simply won’t reach for higher executive roles or ask their employers for a raise, despite wanting to strive for these goals. They will often make up excuses, undervaluing their talents and viewing men as smarter and more technical. Because women are taught by society to view themselves as less valuable compared to men, many females struggle to break free of this stereotype, and as such, believe they should be paid less and aren’t capable of taking on top corporational roles. In addition, the general population continues to wait desperately for governmental legislation to fix the issue of the glass ceiling and the wage gap for them. The problem is, legislation is never perfect, and companies will continue to find loopholes within the system to discredit a woman’s work as something less valuable than a man’s.

Other issues stem from the idea that many women will often accept they will not be able to climb as high on the executive ladder as men, and therefore don’t even bother trying. And while they may be frustrated knowing they’re earning less than the man performing equal work in the next cubicle over, they’re unlikely to do anything about it, as women can be more prone to the fear of failure because of the pressure they are put under by society’s skeptical lens. The glass ceiling then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s time for the working population to face the conflict of the glass ceiling head on if we want to balance both the wage gap and ratio of top corporational roles between men and women. The unfortunate truth is that women have been undervalued by society for hundreds of years, and this mindset isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. While there have been massive improvements in the equal treatment of women in the past several decades (such as the establishment of Ellevest in 2014, an online investment platform that factors in issues of gender, salary, and education levels to help encourage women to invest while considering certain setbacks that other robo advisors don’t factor into their recommendations), there is still a long way to go. And until we get there, the working population will have to do the legwork to research and fight for the wages—and positions—women rightfully deserve. It’s time to start addressing the issues within the cultural system, and teach young girls they can be as dominant and assertive as boys, they do work as hard as men, and they can be as successful as them too, as long as they stand their ground and don’t allow their equally valuable talents be undermined by outdated societal stereotypes.

  1.  Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in Management (August 7, 2019).
  2. Pew Research Center, The narrowing, but persistent, gender gap in pay (March 22, 2019).