Drilling Holes Through the Glass Ceiling

November 9, 2018


We often blame the lack of opportunities for women to assume top leadership roles on the thickness of the glass ceiling. Despite the fact that we have made progress, the ceiling remains firmly in place with few appreciable breakthroughs.


The question is how to dismantle the glass ceiling; the answer— – piece by piece. Poking holes in the solid barrier will make it easier to dismantle. The root cause of this dilemma rests on three factors: societal influences creating unconscious biases and behavioral expectations; workplace systems; and the women themselves.


Many researchers, consulting firms, and organizations address the first two factors. Few directly address the last factor. Additionally, each factor is typically addressed individually rather than seeing the intersectionality of the three. In other words, all three factors comprise a system and they all need to be addressed concurrently to achieve sustainable results.


Pick up your imaginary, heavy-duty drill and start boring away at a few strategic areas. There are a myriad of actions you can take so here are some key spots to begin drilling.


Societal influences, unconscious biases and behavioral expectations: Area #1


Societal influences or norms that define accepted behaviors are instilled from the birth, forming the filters through which we view the world. All decisions we make are affected by them. There are three actions a company can take to counter the influence these biases have on behavioral expectations.


1. Accept that unconscious biases do exist. Everyone has unconscious biases to varying 

    degrees. Leadership needs to publicly acknowledge this fact, own their individual biases,

    and communicate the need to address them. This sets the stage for an open dialog.


2. Increase awareness. The ability to change behavior through unconscious or implicit bias

    training is questionable. However, it does expand awareness. Willingness to manage 

    unconscious biases, authentic conversations, accepting feedback when acting

    unconsciously, self-reflection, and speaking up when observing inappropriate behavior

    elevates everyone’s awareness.


3. Build a culture supporting behavioral change. The actions and words of the CEO and

    senior leaders form the foundation of the company’s culture. Explicit support and

    commitment establish the foundation for creating a safe environment that encourages 

    people to respectively call each other out or intervene when observing inappropriate



Workplace systems: Area #2


Workplace systems beyond specific compliance requirements reflect a company’s culture. Change the policies and procedures, change the culture. The following steps are critical first steps for attracting and retaining talented women.


  1. Ensure hiring and selection practices are gender neutral. Research demonstrates that job descriptions and/or postings are gendered. Women and men respond to descriptions of a work environment differently. For example, women tend to apply for jobs with descriptions like “collaborative, team-oriented, supportive” whereas men tend to be attracted to descriptions using words such as “work hard; play hard, superhero, ninja”. There are software programs that help neutralize job postings.

2.  Remove subjectivity from performance reviews. Be sure objective and measurable    

     performance criteria are integrated into the performance management system. This

     levels the playing field and ensures all employees are evaluated against quantifiable

     metrics regardless of gender.


3.  Develop comprehensive career paths. Build clear descriptions and performance

     measurements associated with career advancement for specific job functions. For

     example, define the competencies an employee must demonstrate before advancing

     from an analyst position to a team leader. This includes advancing into leadership roles.

     Additionally, career paths map out development requirements.


Women’s self-limiting behaviors: Area #3


This area is complex and perhaps the most subtlest issue to address. It takes a combined effort of the women along with support from their managers to shift their behavior. There’s a 19th century English nursery rhyme that persists today: “What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice.” Many women still feel the need to “be nice” and perfect. In fact, these are stereotypical behaviors expected of them.


It takes courage, patience, and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone to manage self-imposed limiting behaviors. It also takes encouragement from managers and other female colleagues to do this.


  1. Beyond dotting the “I’s” and Crossing the “T’s”. Perfection can be a great strength or a liability when it gets in the way of taking risks. Women, volunteer or seek out stretch assignments; managers ensure you’re distributing these assignments equally among men and women. Apply for a promotion or new job despite feeling unsure about matching all the requirements. Frequently, perspective employers would prefer room for a candidate to grow into the job.

2.  Make your voice heard. Be sure to actively participate in meetings. Respectfully reclaim

     your voice if interrupted by a male colleague. Managers and meeting leaders make sure

     everyone has “air time”. Attribute a woman’s idea or suggestion back to her if it has been 

     co-opted by a male colleague or ignored.


3.  Develop the art of self-promotion. Doing a good job and being recognized for it is

     another self-limiting myth. It is important to let your manager and others know what

     you’ve accomplished. Managers need to help women build confidence in talking about

     their accomplishments by allocating time for them to discuss them one-on-one. This

     builds confidence and can be done during a performance review, informal conversations,

     progress reports, or feedback sessions.


     This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more actions managers and women can

     take at each of the strategic areas on the ceiling. However, these are a good methods

     for mitigating self-limiting behavior.


Shattering the glass ceiling is a complex issue and one that warrants a solution if companies, communities, and societies are to thrive. Addressing these three areas and their associated issues, widens the diameter of each hole ultimately leading to the final annihilation of the glass ceiling, opening up new possibilities for all. So, get those drills fired up, place them in the three strategic areas and start drilling from the bottom up and top down. And, remember to include men in getting the job done.

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