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Why Women Keep Knocking Their Heads Against the Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling is a well-known phenomenon in the American workplace. Women have been historically, and consistently, underrepresented in top tier positions in corporate America. While many attempts have been made to remedy the situation over the past several decades, the situation persists. “Women are 45 percent of total employees at the biggest US public companies but hold only about 20 percent of board seats and 5 percent of the CEO jobs, reports the nonprofit Catalyst,” writes Rose Jacobs in an article for the Chicago Booth Review.

Jacobs notes that in order to really make further strides in breaking through the glass ceiling, several specific factors need to be addressed.

Educational Choices

According to Jacobs, the pervasive gender pay gap may be related to the courses of study that women choose in college. She says: "Many female students opt for literature or art history—or other majors that lead to jobs that, while fulfilling, tend toward careers with lower average earnings.” She adds that this issue is well understood by many observers, leading many institutions to advocate for a greater number of women to pursue educational opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.


Another reason women don’t pursue education or careers in high-paying disciplines: they're conditioned from an early age through messaging that certain fields are more appropriate for boys and men than for girls and women. Jacobs points to several studies which show that while boys and girls can perform equally well in STEM fields, boys are typically given more encouragement and attention from educators and even the media, even if it’s done subconsciously.


Finally, Jacobs writes that issues around flexibility and familial obligations often represent a barrier to women in the workplace. Even when equal opportunities for advancement are present for women, women are often more willing to accept lower paying jobs or forego advancement in exchange for greater workplace flexibility. Unless structures are in place to ensure flexibility isn’t financially penalized or is as attractive to men as it is for women, this factor will continue to contribute to the glass ceiling, Jacobs says.

While many efforts have been made in the last several decades, the glass ceiling remains a reality for women across the United States. This doesn’t just impact women who are able to complete the climb up the corporate ladder; it also impacts the companies that may be missing out on top tier talent because of structural impediments.

Take a look at your top tier leadership ranks. Then take a look at the ranks below. How many women have broken through the glass ceiling at your organization?

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