Helping Females Overcome Glass Barriers to Advancement

By Joan Runnheim Olson

While women have come far in the workplace, according to a recent Barack Obama ad, women are paid "77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” What accounts for this disparity and how can women move up the proverbial career ladder? What can career practitioners do to help their clients gain traction and break the glass ceiling?


Gender Stereotypes

In an article by the Huffington Post, the author shares research by Catalyst, a non-profit organization that seeks to expand women's roles in the workplace, stating that women still run just 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Women occupy only 16.1 percent of the board seats in the U.S., according to Catalyst.


Gender stereotypes of what is considered “women’s work” and “men’s work” still exist. Girls and boys are conditioned from birth to act a certain way, look a certain way, and encouraged to fit into their respective gender roles even when considering their career options. These stereotypes can greatly impact their life-long earnings. Females are often encouraged to pursue “pink collar” jobs in the helping or service fields which typically pay lower wages. Women who want to advance in their career face several barriers including the glass ceiling, glass escalator, and glass cliff.


Glass Barriers

Women often drop out of the workforce to raise children and once they jump back in (or try to) their skills have become outdated. These women often find themselves at ground zero struggling to climb back up the ladder. Even women who remain in the workforce bump into the glass ceiling in their effort to advance in their career. In a Fortune article, contributor Anne Fischer points out that in five separate research projects, “…employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to view the presence of women at work unfavorably -- and, more frequently, to deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotion." This is just one example of the invisible barrier used to describe what women encounter when trying to reach the upper echelons in a company.


Many women also face a phenomenon called the “glass escalator” effect. This metaphor is used to describe the fact that men often get promoted faster than women, even in fields dominated by women. The nursing and education fields are flooded with women. When you take a look at the top though, it’s often men that hold the executive level positions.


According to research from Yale University, when a woman does make it to ahigh level job traditionally held by the opposite gender, she is judged more harshly for her mistakes. While the glass ceiling keeps women from rising higher, women face the danger of falling from the glass cliff.


Overcoming the Barriers

Career practitioners can help women break the glass ceiling, bypass men moving up the glass escalator, or help them avoid falling from the glass cliff. Below are some strategies you can share with your female clients:


  1. Grow and Maintain Your Network

According to an article by Nicki Gilmour, Founder and CEO of theglasshammer.com, effective network building isn’t the same as networking and it is more than just socializing. Building your network requires more than idle chit chat with nice people. Look for events to engage with your peers. “All good networks provide support but should also provide access to senior members (both men and women) in your firm,” says Gilmour.

Join a professional industry-related association to keep up-to-date with your field and to meet new people. Gain more visibility by volunteering to serve on the board or pitching in at the annual conference. Not only is it important to expand your network outside the office, it’s important to network within your organization as well. Do you have coffee or lunch with colleagues from other departments? Networking within will help keep you visible and it will help you understand what is going on in other areas of the company.

  1. Find a Mentor or Sponsor

Why not shorten the learning curve? Find someone who has “been there, done that.” A mentor can help guide you, connect you with other influential people, and help you over the hurdles on the way to the top. Typical developmental areas a mentor can help with include time management, stress management, prioritizing, teamwork, and communication skills.

A sponsor may be even more beneficial to your career. According to a recent Forbes article, “The New Case for Women on Corporate Boards: New Perspectives, Increased Profits,” “sponsorship is a more aggressive cousin of mentorship, involving advocating for the advancement of high-potential individuals in their careers.” Start looking within your network to identify a potential mentor or sponsor.

  1. Toot Your Own Horn

Women often feel like they are bragging when sharing their accomplishments. However, if you don’t share them, who will? It can be as simple as, “I’m really excited to have just finished the ABC Project on time and under budget.” A good book to help clients overcome this fear is "Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It" by Peggy Klaus. The author says that self-promotion is recognized as one of the most important attributes for getting ahead, but learning to share your talents and successes without coming across as smug or rehearsed is a tricky skill. Her techniques can help readers become great self-promoters.


Helping Women Who Drop Out

For women who decide to remove themselves from the workplace to raise children or care for elderly parents, career practitioners can help these clients create a plan to maintain marketability while taking time off from paid employment. Encourage your clients to stay in contact with former colleagues and maintain membership in an industry-related professional association. Help them explore volunteer options or part-time or contract work to keep their skills up-to-date.




Joan Runnheim OlsonJoan Runnheim Olson is an internationally certified career coach who helps professionals move up, move forward, or move on in their career. She is a contributor to the recently published book, “WorkSmarts: Be a Winner on the Job” and is an invited expert blogger for the Career Thought Leader Consortium, a think tankfor the now, the new, and the next in careers. You can visit her website at www.pathwayscareer.com or email her at joan@pathwayscareer.com.


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Cindy Dawson   on Tuesday 10/02/2012 at 04:03 PM

Thank you, Joan, for writing this article! Women who read this will be encouraged; while Men may ignore these facts.

I appreciate your concise analysis of this subject! You just saved me about 100 hours of researching this myself!!

Women stick together!!

Chritsine Weigel   on Tuesday 10/02/2012 at 04:54 PM

Very helpful article Joan. It has opened my eyes to networking within my current organization and possibly related areas.

Catherine Byers Breet   on Wednesday 10/03/2012 at 10:22 AM

Fantastic advice, Joan! Thank you for always providing such valuable, easy-to-execute advice for women who want to reach their full potential. I've shared this link with my network.

We all need the push ... because the most critical step is to believe in yourself. Then smashing the glass becomes so much easier.


Susan Guarneri   on Wednesday 10/03/2012 at 11:47 AM

Joan - loved your article reminding us all that the glass ceiling still exists.

Your third strategy - Toot Your Own Horn - really grabbed me. Self-promotion is essential for a modern-day job search.

For example, when I develop a client's resume, bio, and/or LinkedIn Profile, accomplishments and personal branding are a must. But these are often the elements where my clients, especially women, are reluctant to "put their best foot forward" because they think it is bragging!

Peggy Andrews   on Saturday 10/27/2012 at 08:52 PM

I am concerned to see NCDA promote an article that leads with a political talking point that has been debunked by many sources (see below):

Indeed women do make less than men, but once you take into account variables such as occupational choices, number of hours worked per year, and longevity in the workforce, the actual figure is closer to 91 cents to the dollar.

Betsey Stevenson, a business and public policy professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and visiting economics professor at Princeton University who previously served as chief economist for Obama’s labor secretary said "Sexism may explain differences in occupation, industry, education, hours and weeks worked, so it’s hard to know how much of the gap is due to discrimination. But (77 cents) isn’t the right statistic for saying ‘the same work as’.”

Clearly even a gap of 9 cents per hour this size needs to be addressed on both an organizational and individual level, but inflating the problem by 14 cents/hour (roughly 18%) just to make a point does a disservice to the women we aim to help. Any successful plan for change – such as a career development plan – must start with a realistic assessment of one’s goals and circumstances within the context of the environment. Misunderstanding the environmental constraints and opportunities will lead to uninformed plans that have lesser chance of success.



Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.