Understanding Glass Ceilings

Some people have careers that progress smoothly through various levels of organizational work, a smooth upward trajectory that makes most of us sick with envy. Other people have unorthodox careers, or start businesses, and the concept of ‘career progression’ doesn’t apply to them. Some people find a niche that is ‘good enough’ and stay there. And some people work hard to achieve progression, succeed for a while, and then stop. It doesn’t matter how hard they work or how many accomplishments they accumulate, there is no progression for them. They’ve hit a glass ceiling.

The term ‘glass ceiling’ comes from feminism, because once women had won the fight to be included in the workforce, it turned out that there was a separate battle needed to break into management, and into the boardroom. The fight to be included in the ‘boys club’ at senior levels is not over, and gender bias remains a significant factor. However, there are also men who find themselves blocked by a glass ceiling. I struggled with it for a long time before working out how and why the club opens the doors to someone.

Having studied the glass ceiling that I felt crushed by for a long time before working out how it opens, I think I understand a lot about approaches to the problem that don’t work. Having been in meetings of the leadership club, I have an understanding of why doors finally opened. Having made decisions to shut people out, I feel like I’ve come full circle. I want a more inclusive society, and I’d like more people (men and women) in those clubs.

A good reason for glass ceilings to exist

There are bad reasons for glass ceilings, but they need to be taken in the context of the good reason. When we start out on a career path, we are tasked with doing things that challenge our technical abilities (our ability to get things done). During those early stages, our progression is determined by how well we address the technical challenges.

The middle of the career ladder is full of people challenges: problems of cooperating, coordinating and ‘getting along’ add a new dimension to work. If you don’t notice this transition, and focus on technical skills, you will hit a glass ceiling. Once you have enough technical skill to qualify for the middle of the ladder, adding more of it doesn’t help anymore; to progress, you have to address this new category of challenge.

The top of the career ladder is full of coping challenges: problems of information overload, of wondering where next month’s payroll is coming from, or of competitors trying to put you out of business. If you can’t find a way to sleep at night, to manage your personal resources, to step into the terrifying unknown, to listen to obnoxious advice, then you will fail. People who suspect that you can’t cope will put a glass ceiling in front of you. No amount of skill can make up for an inability to cope.

So we can see that (when it comes to the good reason), people who cope well and get along well will have a smoother time on the career ladder. People who excel at a skill will progress rapidly when it’s the most relevant challenge, but won’t progress at other times.

Bad reasons for glass ceilings

The most obvious bad reason is bigotry and prejudice in all its forms (sexism, racism, classism). It can be expressed in a thousand different ways, from overt statements of “We don’t like your kind” to subtler ways, typically along the lines of “We just never considered.”

Another bad reason is that employers often don’t support their people, and don’t support their ambitions. Managers are not necessarily aware for the good reason for glass ceilings; they also might not have the skills required to develop a subordinate’s capabilities. This leads to a perception that “some people have it, and some people don’t” that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The last bad reason is to do with the person climbing the ladder. Looking back at advice that I received 20 years ago, I wish I’d had the wisdom to accept that advice. Even recently, I’ve worked hard on the capabilities I already had, instead of turning to the painful task of developing the capabilities I needed.

Self-reliant people tend to fall into that trap most heavily. I recently encountered the saying “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” My slow metamorphosis from a ‘sprinting career’ to ‘distance running’ has challenged me to listen better at every step. (First, I learned to listen to others; now, I’m learning to listen to myself again.)

Things that don’t help

Getting angry about the existence of the glass ceiling won’t make it go away. One of the first things that excludes people from club membership is displays of temper. The existence of a good reason for having a glass ceiling means that no number of attacks on the bad reasons will succeed.

Recruiting supporters from underneath the glass ceiling doesn’t help either. If they knew how to break through it, they wouldn’t be stuck underneath it with you.

Demanding entry can give the illusion of a breakthrough (a nice impressive title, an office, perhaps even money) but it doesn’t get you into the club. Smashing down the door you can see will result in the construction of more and more invisible walls of increasing subtlety. (At 22, my technical ability got me the title ‘R&D Manager’, but it didn’t mean that I got to make more decisions than before.)

Things that do work

Asking for help is the single most powerful and underrated method for getting ahead in most organizations. In particular, the people at the top of the ladder (the ones with the coping challenges) are constantly hoping they can offload some of their challenges onto someone else. There’s also an enormous sense of satisfaction available if you manage to help someone make a positive transition. Asking for advice from up the ladder (and following that advice, no matter how nonsensical it might be) is the best way to construct alliances that will help you progress.

Take opportunities to practice the next-level capabilities. Start an online guild, have problems with your members, and fix them. Volunteer for a community organization — leadership turnover is high enough that you’ll get a turn. Go to the gym and build up your fitness. Socialize.

Get your boss promoted. Work openly with your boss to help them get promoted; if they suspect you might be the reason they were promoted, then they’ll work to keep you within reach. If someone senior notices that you’re helping your boss (including respecting your boss’s confidentiality), then they might want to promote you for their own reasons.

Some notes about organization cultures

Mature industries (such as manufacturing and retail) are more likely to have an orderly progression that someone can explain. Emerging industries will be far less predictable (for better and for worse).

Organizations with a lot of money (banks, multinationals) will tend to be more forgiving and less political than organizations with unreliable funding (research institutions, struggling businesses).

Big organizations will be more subtle, and have opportunities for people who can sniff them out. Small organizations will be more intense, and have opportunities for people that impress key individuals.

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