What’s Beyond the Glass in Career Advancement for Women?

iStock-533921850-women-men-running-2Tracey Robinson takes a look at the emotive language surrounding women and their careers.

The Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership includes a chapter by Savita Kumra about metaphors used to describe systemic barriers for women. Kumra ponders the symbol of “glass”, meaning something both ubiquitous and invisible until stopped by it. The “glass ceiling” metaphor came into use in the 1990s (Morrison and Von Glinow, 1990) to explain the disadvantage faced by women and minorities when trying to advance to management positions. The appeal of the metaphor created widespread use in women’s leadership studies and subsequent riffs including “glass escalators, walls and cliffs”.

But can the narrative of “glass” limit our thinking? Kumra is interested in exploring the underlying assumptions in the use of “glass” as a symbol, and helps to unpack the beliefs that support it.

One view of feminism holds that organizations are not biased by gender, and wherever inequality is found, it can be remedied by ensuring that women and men are treated the same and given the same chances for success (Davis, 2010). The view is based on system interventions for the advancement of women and the assurance of equal rights through legislative and policy reforms.

How is this perspective working to create change? Kumra points out that after many decades, men still vastly outnumber women in leadership positions and the bias of gender is still firmly entrenched in organizations.  While improvements have been made in leadership and politics, the change is so slow that it will take the better part of a century to reach gender parity, (assuming there is no counter movement).

Millenials want work that is meaningful and life that is balanced,
and they want it now

Enter stage left: the “millennials”. Raised on stories that success can come quick and in unconventional ways, millenials want work that is meaningful and life that is balanced, and they want it now. Characteristics of the generations include little tolerance for following tradition or creating change through slow reform, and an appetite for disruptive innovation (Ng et al., 2010).

Kumra uses contemporary examples to explain the impact of this alternative view on recent events. She looks to emergent principles in feminism that broaden the agenda to include global issues and newer generations, and to include more complexity of thinking such as intersectionality (ie. that being a women and being a person of colour create a different set of challenges that being a white woman). From this wider perspective on feminism, Kumra describes the popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, for the way it ignores systemic reform in favour of personal agency. I remember in that book, Sandberg uses the metaphor of a “jungle gym” rather than a “corporate ladder” to explain how women can continue to advance, even when a route appears blocked. No glass.

In the political arena, Kumra analyzes the emergent views on feminism to demonstrate how Hilary Clinton missed getting the vote of younger women and ethnic women. Her perspective on feminism represented “the establishment” and the continued intent to make slow and steady progress, which alienated many.

So how does this reflect back to “glass”? Kumra is careful not to empty the meaning of feminism because the view of it is becoming broader and more inclusive (Dicker & Piepmeier, 2003). She believes that the earlier metaphors had their time and place, and hopes we understand the limitations of continuing to use the “glass” metaphor in women’s studies. Like the expanded view of feminism, Kumra suggests that novel and contextual metaphors may be employed, and that the slow reform principles of the earlier feminist view should not be abandoned with the newer zest for personal agency. She implies that time will reveal how both views are needed.

This blog piece is reproduced with kind permission from Tracey Robinson and was originally published here.


The Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership, edited by Susan R. Madsen, Utah Valley University, US, is available now,.

NEW: paperback version due March 2018.

Read Chapter 1 free online:  The Current Status of Women Leaders Worldwide by Elizabeth Goryunova, Robbyn T. Scribner and Susan R. Madsen



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