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What is the glass ceiling these days?
The traditional view is that the glass ceiling is the white male’s comfy, old boy culture at the top that is threatened by the entrance of women into their private enclaves. In these secret nooks and crannies of corporate culture, it’s thought, leadership culture is one of alpha-dogmanship, cutthroat competition and kingmaking where women simply don’t fit.
There is certainly truth to the idea that white men rule the top ranks of most powerful organizations in our world. Studies continue to find that cultural barriers shunt women off the corporate ladder midway to the top, men run the government and gender bias is real.
The prevailing belief I hear most often about how to address this phenomenon – reflecting the assumption that the glass ceiling is just a product of recalcitrant men – is that if women could just shatter past the glass ceiling in greater numbers, we would automagically fix the problem by fixing the culture. However, I’m not so sure it’s this simple. Recent research shows that in at least one traditional organization this did not happen, and there’s no end of anecdotal insight about how some senior women who’ve “made it” do not help their more junior female colleagues.
I’m not saying women won’t help fix the culture as we rise to the top in greater numbers (I believe we will), but it’s fair to be concerned that women who are a product of the culture that maintains a glass ceiling will have a difficult time changing it, just like many well-intentioned men do.
What If The Glass Ceiling Isn’t Really About Women Anymore?
In my research about women, business and power, I have come to believe that the glass ceiling isn’t really just about women anymore. Clearly women pay a huge price thanks to the glass ceiling’s existence, but we’re not alone. One could argue that minorities pay an even larger price, but I think these demographic realities overshadow a psycho-graphic shift that is even more concerning to the health of our economy’s leadership pipeline.
Rather than reflecting outright prejudice in most instances, I believe the glass ceiling has begun to reflect larger systemic problems in our corporate hiring and promotion practices, problems that the influx of Gen Y and Millennial employees will make more prominent. The glass ceiling doesn’t just exclude women, it filters out people from the bottom that don’t look like, act like and think like the people at the top. Today there are many reasons for these differences, only some having to do with our gender or racial packaging. For example, many Gen Y women and men value work-life flexibility and doing work with meaning. They’re willing to take a stand for these values in ways generations before them didn’t. To the extent that more people “below” have these values and the glass ceiling effectively filters them out, it is shrinking the leadership pool potentially dramatically.
The Glass Ceiling As a Values Filter
To the extent the glass ceiling doesn’t filter only by gender, but by race and values as well, women can see the ladder to the top as more of a choice than a fait accompli.
The glass ceiling as a values filter means that the modern glass ceiling may not be something done “to us” but something we choose. I know many talented women and men (myself included) who found the glass ceiling of values a perfectly good reason to leave and work for more flexible companies, including their own. The entrepreneurial ranks are burgeoning and women-owned businesses are growing at 1.5 times the rate as those owned by men. Women-owned businesses also enjoy lower capitalization rates, and thus less pressure to produce exorbitant profits. While this may dismay some who define success as the multiple you can flip your company for in three years, entrepreneurship offers women and “youngsters” who have a broader definition of success a perfectly suitable living.
What do you think the glass ceiling is? A barrier erected to keep you out or a filter for those who value the same thing? What does the glass ceiling look like to you if you see it as a choice to share the values of those above it or stand by your own?
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