Is the Ceiling Glass or Titanium?

I get really frustrated when yet another study comes out showing the continued absence of women at the highest levels of corporations. The numbers may vary a point or so from study to study, but no matter how you slice it, the results are bleak. Only 17% of Fortune 500 board members are women. Only 3% of Board Chairs are women.  And a recent Catalyst study showed that the number of women in senior positions in 2012 remained unchanged from 2005.

Why is there such a failure to shatter the glass ceiling? Why have we made so little progress, ESPECIALLY when it has been proven that diversity at the top directly correlates to a more successful organization?  It makes you wonder if that ceiling is glass or titanium.

The main reason the ceiling has been so shatter-resistant, is that there ISN’T one reason.  At the very least, it’s a “double whammy” centered on both the women themselves and the culture of the corporations for which they work.

Women traditionally do a worse job then men at advocating for themselves and at embracing career-advancing strategies. Many talented women never even see themselves in the running.  In a recent Op Ed piece in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof cited an April McKinsey survey which underscored women’s failure to go for the corporate brass ring.  The study found that “36% of male employees at major corporations aspired to be top executives, compared with 18% of women.”

Likewise, corporations knowingly or unknowingly reinforce the glass ceiling. While most major companies espouse the advancement of their women, top management usually fails to aggressively follow through with male managers at the level where women start their path upward.  While most managers would deny “second gender discrimination,” those attitudes still hang heavy in many—if not most—middle levels of corporate America.  Will she be able to do all the traveling? What about her kids?  Will she fit in with the guys?  Can she handle the stress?  These are the kinds of often subliminal mind sets that create an iron-clad barrier to women moving past the middle levels of management.

While the picture is far from rosy, it’s not all doom and gloom either. We at WOMEN Unlimited, Inc. are seeing more major corporations committed in a real sense to developing their talented women by using our proven method of mentoring, educating and networking. This approach works because it is holistic in scope, involving not only the woman taking our program, but also her manager(s), her mentors, and her top executives.

As a result, attitudes towards inclusiveness and diversity change company-wide and obstacles to talented women advancing start to crumble. Women who attend our programs stay with their sponsoring companies for the long haul because they know their chances of success and advancement are higher than elsewhere. Corporations, to the tune of 98%, continue to work with us so they can more and more enjoy the benefits of diversity at the top.  It’s happening over and over in leading companies nationwide.

As I see this shift start to take hold, I remain a realistic optimist.  For now, women at the top are a news-worthy anomaly.  But I envision a time, not too far into the future, when their absence from C-suites and board rooms will be what captures the headlines.

Rosina L. Racioppi
President & Chief Executive Officer
WOMEN Unlimited, Inc.