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How to Keep the Glass Ceiling from Ruining your Career

The Glass Ceiling Is Not A Myth!

The Glass Ceiling
Image by hyejin kang@iStock

The Challenge of the Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling is not a myth — it is not wise to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Indicators that it exists . . . 

  • You have been passed over twice for a promotion that you were unquestionably qualified for.
  • You know your boss’ job better than he does. In fact, you do a lot of his work.
  • You want to go into upper management, but factors indicate it’s not likely to happen because there are no women in upper management in your company.
  • You are frustrated, have no idea what to do next, and help is not forthcoming. 

Sound Familiar?

If you have been climbing the corporate ladder for a while, the answer is probably yes, they sound familiar. 

The glass ceiling is very real. You may have already hit it; if not, it is probable that you will hit it at some point in the future.

You can hide your head in the sand and tell yourself it will not be an obstacle for you – even believing it is something women use as an excuse for not reaching their goals. That would be a mistake, for which you could pay a price.

As a woman who has been in the workforce for 60+ years, I have hit the glass ceiling so many times it is a wonder that I am still in one piece, but my story is not the point of this article.

The point is that there is hope for younger women. The business world has changed, and will continur to change, albeit slowly, and you can be part of the change if you proceed with your eyes wide open. 

6 Things You Should Know about the Glass Ceiling

1. There Are Unconscious Biases at Play

Gender bias is one of the strongest biases in the world and is a major factor in the difficulty women face in becoming leaders in the business world.

Biases begin at a young age and solidify through socialization, as identities are formed, and through media influences.

Those deep-seated biases affect how each person thinks and feels about certain types of people — especially what makes a man a man, and a woman a woman.

Biases are hard to escape, are largely unconscious, and produce unintentional results; silently reinforcing the glass ceiling.

Harvard University researcher Mahzarin Banaji in the Harvard Business Review writes,

“Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased….But more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.”

Yes, in reality, our biases affect us and our decision-making processes in a several ways:

    • Perception — how we see people and perceive reality.
    • Attitude — how we react toward certain people.
    • Behaviors — how receptive/friendly we are towards certain people.
    • Attention — which aspects of a person we pay most attention to.
    • Listening — how much we actively listen to what certain people say.
    • Micro-affirmations — how much or how little we comfort certain people in certain situations.” [i.e. Women in leadership positions.]

Whether people are aware of it or not, each of these things will affect who is selected for promotions and special consideration on the job.

Even those who believe they are open-minded and not prejudiced against women will be at the mercy of such biases.

Everyone Has Them

You are also biased and those biases may also impact your path to the top.

Take the time to recognize your biases and notice how they play out in your relationships. Do what you can to eliminate harmful behaviors that may result because of them.

Your company’s cultural biases and how they contribute to the glass ceiling issue are another matter. Those you cannot control. But, if you recognize they may be unconscious and unintentional, you may be able to deal with them more effectively when they are aimed at you.

Remaining calm, refraining from accusations and blame, and speaking to the appropriate people to help you address it will be the best step forward in such situations. You must be willing to take action on your behalf.

2. Self-Awareness and Clarity Are Key

To climb the corporate leadership ladder, self-awareness of your strengths and a clear understanding of your risk factors are critical.

In Nancy E. Parsons book, Fresh Insights to End the Glass Ceilingshe emphasizes that women should honestly answer tough questions about themselves:

1. Do I truly want to lead? Or do I would I be happier and more effective in a team player or individual contributor role?

2. What are my true, inherent strengths? For example . . .

      • Do I naturally take charge whether I’m asked to, or not?
      • How comfortable am I with making decisions?
      • Do I enjoy process rather than strategy?
      • Am I good at building relationships?
      • Am I sales oriented?
      • Do I have exceptional planning skills?

3. What are my risks and vulnerabilities?

      • Am I a worrier? Do I fear failure and making mistakes?
      • Am I a pleaser? Am I a “yes” person and do I help to a fault?
      • Do I detach and go quiet when facing conflict?
      • Do I fight and move against adversaries?
      • Am I a perfectionist? Must I excel at every job?
      • Am I prone to negativity or criticism when things go wrong?
      • Is my confidence sometimes overdone?
      • Am I pushy with my point-of-view? Do I dominate airtime?”

You should take a hard look at the answers to these questions and analyze how your strengths can help you and how your risk factors will affect you as you climb the corporate ladder.

You need to know what triggers your risk tendencies, when they show up, what impact they have on you personally and on others, and what you can do to prevent, neutralize, or manage them more effectively. Don’t let them defeat you.

If you are serious about pursuing a leadership position, it would be wise to find a leadership coach who can provide you with individual assessments and coaching to help you work through this process of building on strengths and managing risks.

3. Confidence and Leadership – Required Critical Elements 

Confidence is critical — yet women often struggle with demonstrating confidence. Even when a woman earns a seat at the table, she often behaves as if she doesn’t have the right to have a voice at the table.

Be careful not to defer too often to male counterparts, it will make you look weak and others will take advantage.

Confidence in the business world doesn’t just happen. It comes from believing in yourself, maintaining focused effort, continually looking forward, displaying a willingness to learn, and developing the ability to ask for promotions, resources, and opportunities

Men are more naturally confident and ask for what they want instinctively — women don’t. When women are under pressure, they default to self-defeating, diminishing behaviors that pull them out of the limelight.

Learn to appreciate your capabilities and experience. Find a way to let go of self-defeating behaviors. Stand up, speak out, and ask for what you want and need. Move confidently toward a limitless future.

Own your power. Develop a solid belief in yourself and behave accordingly.

4. You Can’t Play It Safe

Don’t let fear cause you to avoid expressing your opinion, shy away from the spotlight, cause you to overanalyze everything, and insist on all the facts before making a decision.

Stop playing it safe!

It may not be easy in the beginning, but you must speak up and step up in the decision-making process with your co-workers, your team, or in the board room.

People will disagree with your position, but having the ability to hold your ground and clearly explain your ideas will earn respect and admiration.

Running from conflict will destroy your chances for advancement. Conflict will always exist and learning how to manage and resolve workplace conflict is necessary for leaders regardless of gender.

5. Sacrifice May Be Necessary

It is important to learn how to pace your life — and realize that you cannot have it all at once.

The key is to find a reasonable pace that includes your personal and professional goals and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

It is impossible to be everything to everyone, all the time. Prioritization and alignment of goals are required to have both a healthy personal and professional life.

6. You Must Choose Your Path

The reality is that you will have to give up some things to have other things.

The time will come when you must choose the life you want. Then, you will need strength and courage to face the challenges that come with your choice and to be happy with the life you create.

If rising to a position of power as a corporate leader is the path you choose, you must be aware of what you are facing and find ways to break or circumvent the obstacles, including the glass ceiling.

The Glass Ceiling Is a Reality

Prepare Yourself for What Lies Ahead

Awareness and acknowledgment of what is true will open the door for action.

Knowing what lies ahead and being prepared, increases the probability that you will reach your goals.

Study your options closely, be aware of the necessary sacrifices (if any) and choose your path.

Always keep in mind that knowing yourself and clarity about what you want are key.

I am confident that with clarity of thought, you can do anything you choose, despite the glass ceiling or any other obstacles you may face.

As a woman, you have great power when you choose to own it.


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