Shattering Glass Ceilings: How to Overcome Barriers to Success

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Though we’ve come a long way since the era of "Mad Men," women and minorities still face major hurdles in the workplace. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, women earned about 85% of what their male counterparts earned in 2018. This number dropped even further when the women were also minorities, but this isn’t just about the pay gap. Women and minorities frequently face what’s heralded as the "glass ceiling" — the artificial barrier that prevents them from advancing to leadership positions.

Racial and gender equality varies from industry to industry. For example, men outnumber women in STEM and financial fields, but traditional pink-collar jobs like nursing or elementary education are still largely female-dominated. Nonetheless, small businesses can make a concerted effort to help support women and minorities through strict nondiscrimination policies, human resources efforts and company culture — and it may even be a legal requirement.

What Are Glass Ceilings?

A glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from advancing in their career compared to white men, and the numbers are staggering when you look at it. According to the Wall Street Journal, women lead just 167 of the top 3,000 companies. When it comes to minorities, only four black professionals held CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies in 2019. None of these CEOs were black women.

That’s not to say that things aren’t improving; they’re just not improving quickly enough. Since 1980, the gender pay gap has shrunk from 36 cents to 15 cents, but women are now graduating from college at higher percentages than men. Even so, about 40% of working women say they’ve experienced gender discrimination at work, and 26% of claims with the Equal Opportunities Employment Commission and its partner agencies are filed by black workers even though they only make up 13% of the U.S. labor market.

Discrimination Is Illegal

The glass ceiling happens, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily legal. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the U.S. created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a subset of the Department of Labor. According to federal employment discrimination laws, equal opportunity employers must not discriminate against employees based on race, skin color, religion, nationality, gender, age or physical or mental state, but some businesses are exempt.

If you’re operating a privately owned company, state agency, labor union or joint apprenticeship with 15 or more employees who worked for at least 20 weeks, you must follow EEOC guidelines. Unfortunately, workers are hesitant to report violations while they are still currently employed, and many companies actively discourage it. According to a Vox report, 40% of people who filed complaints with the EEOC and its partner agencies from 2010 through 2017 reported retaliation.

This entire situation can be avoided if you create a workplace culture that prevents discrimination from the start.

Get Serious About Equal Pay

The racial and gender gap when it comes to salary sneaks up on employers and entrepreneurs in a very insidious way unless they’re doing their due diligence. For example, an MIT Sloan study found that self-identified black Americans are less likely to negotiate than white Americans. The same goes for women.

According to MIT Sloan, the best way to limit the pay gap is to create organizational systems and structures that foster open communication and empower employees to show their uniqueness. In addition:

  • Offer racial- and gender-bias training to those making hiring decisions.

  • Avoid asking candidates their former salary. Candidates from minority backgrounds may not have felt comfortable negotiating their salary in the past, so it could be on the low end. Instead, offer a salary range and only make exceptions for exemplary candidates.

  • Perform regular payroll audits through upper and middle management to make sure raises are occurring at the same rate. Amend discrepancies but be sure to not admit wrongdoing or you could open up your business to a discrimination lawsuit.

Support Working Women by Fostering a Better Work-Life Balance

Supporting a healthy work-life balance is one of the most basic ways a company can support a working woman because many women drop out of the workforce or are passed up for management-level positions because of their duties as a parent. Overall, mothers are more likely to adjust careers around their kids than fathers, which often has professional repercussions.

A 2018 McKinsey report found that 49% of employed women are their family’s main breadwinner yet they still take on the majority of the household duties. This isn’t just limited to chores and caring for children; it also includes caring for sick or elderly family members. Despite the fact that women entrepreneurs are taking on the majority of work, they’re not more likely to have access to additional benefits like paid leave.

To create an environment that helps women crack the glass ceiling and rise to upper-level, decision-making roles, you can offer:

  • Paid family leave: You may think paid maternity leave is enough, but paternity leave actually helps mothers get back to work sooner. It also protects their roles so they can come back and start where they left off rather than dropping out altogether and starting at a lower level somewhere else.

  • More paid sick days: Statistically, the duty of caring for a sick child is more likely to fall on mothers, who must then split their time off between when they’re sick and when their child is sick. More paid sick days help.

  • Flexible work hours: Not only are flexible work hours actually proven to increase productivity and attract top talent across the board but it also greatly helps working women excel. Flexible work hours allow mothers to build their schedule around their kids when they’d otherwise have to take half days off or take off completely.

  • Child care and child care subsidies: Large companies like Goldman Sachs have their own day care programs. Others like Google and Amazon offer subsidized backup day care, but this kind of support can also come in the form of a dependent care FSA. This is a pretax benefit account used to pay for things like preschool, summer camp, before- and after-school programs and day care.

Once you give these benefits, it’s important to not disregard employees because they take them. For example, the Harvard Business Review reports that women employees who take longer maternity leaves are generally viewed as less desirable than those who do not. This perpetuates the glass ceiling because very qualified women are forced to choose between family and work and are passed up for promotions.

Have Processes That Discourage Harassment

It’s no secret that women face higher levels of sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace than their male counterparts. About 54% of women report workplace harassment, and minority women are more likely to suffer from sexual harassment than their white female coworkers. If you want to break the glass ceiling, you have to end workplace harassment. In order to help prevent harassment and create a positive workplace culture, your business should:

  • Have a clearly defined harassment policy: Clearly lay out the definition of sexual harassment along with other kinds of harassment and state that it won’t be tolerated. Have a course of action to take when harassment happens. Investigate all claims with the same stringent processes and reprimand any retaliation.

  • Host annual harassment training: Employees should be trained on sexual harassment and what to do if they witness or are the victim of sexual harassment and discrimination.

  • Train supervisors and managers: Supervisors and managers should learn how to handle complaints, properly report issues to HR and properly mitigate harassment situations.

In order to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, you must actually reprimand harassment. A slap on the wrist is not always enough.

Make Sure Employees Have Equal Opportunity

You may not legally be doing something wrong by allowing teams to form themselves naturally, but if you want to create an environment that helps advance women and minorities, you have to be mindful of opportunity. This is especially important because women notoriously minimize their skills and are talked over in meetings. To help mitigate this problem, you should make sure that women and minorities:

  • Are part of the most valuable projects

  • Meet the same people, develop a rapport across teams and have the same access to mentorships

  • Have the same access to training and opportunities

  • Are matched with projects suited to their actual skill level (not higher, which sets them up to fail, or lower, which prevents growth)

  • Are given uninterrupted time to speak at team meetings as long as they’re contributing to the project

It’s important to maintain these standards through regular checks and employee evaluations. If you know your employees' goals, you can help them meet them.

Find Candidates Through Diverse Listings

A lot of times, small businesses pull their higher-level team members from personal contacts, but personal contacts are often the same demographic. How many times have we seen a startup founder hire his two best mates from college? In order to create a competitive environment where diversity flourishes, you need to pull applicants from a larger pool.

Some business owners may turn to headhunters or professional agencies to find diverse employees. Others may wish to look directly at LinkedIn and research candidates themselves. There are also diversity-focused job boards and professional groups to which you can reach out directly. In some cases, you may wish to consult former employees who left to tend to family.

Offer Targeted Internships and Scholarships

One of the best ways to shatter the glass ceiling is by giving opportunity to those who don’t typically have the privilege. Scholarships and paid targeted internships can help employees from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds get an opportunity they may not otherwise be able to afford.

It’s especially important to nurture entry-level talent in industries that are grossly lacking diversity. There may be limited top-level employees from diverse backgrounds, but internships and scholarships can encourage an industrywide change over time.

Be Aware of the Glass Cliff

There’s a phenomena in business called the glass cliff, where a struggling company will hire a woman or minority as a chief executive to help save it. The thinking goes that if a company is failing, it may be able to do a 180 if it hires someone who’s not a typical executive (i.e., a white man), but this largely puts top-tier female and minority talent in a bad position. The likelihood of failure is high, and it’s potentially damaging to their careers.

According to Vox, women and minorities generally take these roles because they don’t have as many good opportunities, whereas the typical white male candidate will walk away from the train wreck before it crashes. Statistically, women who take glass cliff positions are risk takers, but women leaders are not rewarded at the same rate for the risks. About 38% of women CEOs were forced out of their roles over a 10-year period versus 27% of men.

The issue with this concept is easily preventable within your own small business: Don’t set up women and minorities to fail. Dole out a workload with attainable goals based on skill level and reward employees for innovation.