Diversity: Glass Ceiling and Women Empowerment Through Coaching

A Research Paper By Julie I Bockarie, Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES

Diversity: Glass Ceiling and Women Empowerment Through Coaching Julie I Bockarie_Coaching_Research_Paper

Diversity, Glass Ceiling, and Women Empowerment

A lot has been written about gender equality, and the importance of diversity in the workplace, yet there continues to be the issue of gender gap which shows up in various ways.  This paper aims to address one aspect of diversity challenges, the Glass Ceiling Syndrome, its effects on women particularly, and how coaching is playing a part in attempts to shatter it.

For many years, women have been faced with the challenge of how to break the glass ceiling, or at least crack it open.  This syndrome shows up professionally, socially, personally, locally, and globally.  It has affected women in different ways.  Some have continued to hit their heads against the glass, fueled by their passion and hope that someday, any number of things could happen:  1) the glass could be shattered; 2) there could be a crack on it, or 3) someone might decide to peer through the glass from the top and notice the efforts of those below the ‘glass’ and lend a helping hand.

There are some, however, who have decided, that, to avoid conflict, they would be content to operate below the glass ceiling.  These are usually people who have been raised to believe that this is a man’s world or that women must be submissive to men.  This group of women continues to trudge on, producing quality work, but not pushing to be noticed.  Once in a while, they might receive a mention, which brings a little smile on their faces for having been noticed.

Others, closely related to the former, make some attempts, fail, feel that the ceiling is so thick that they dare not attempt to do anything anymore.   These sit in discouragement, holding onto their stories about the glass ceiling, their failed attempts, and the feeling that it is insurmountable. Sometimes, these stories expand in their minds and keep them stuck.

What Is the Glass Ceiling Syndrome?What Is the Glass Ceiling Syndrome?

“Glass Ceiling Syndrome” has been described as “the invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from rising to the highest ranks in a corporation.” (Babel and Hansez, 2021).  It is vertical discrimination against women and minorities within organizations, which makes it difficult for them to reach decision-making positions or attain opportunities they see in front of them even though they are fully qualified for it, and despite their best efforts. This affects mainly women, but also minority groups as well.

This is the case, even in organizations that promote diversity and legislation for equal opportunities for women and men.  It is important to mention that a lot of research has been done about this syndrome, but, as some authors point out, it is still pervasive, indicating that a large gap exists between theory and true understanding of this phenomenon, and its implications.

The term which was coined in 1978, by Marilyn Loden, at a Women’s Exposition in New York City, when she spoke about the barriers women encounter when ascending the career ladder, has become part of an enduring legacy for women’s rights. It was used along with another term, coined “the mommy track.”  The mommy track was a term used to refer to women of child-bearing age who had young children.  They were deemed less likely to be motivated and less disciplined, than their male colleagues or older females.  The perception was that women of child-bearing age would take extensive time off or leave the workforce altogether, to raise their children.  Upon return to work, they were perceived to be less dedicated employees, due to their maternal duties and the tendency to take time off work. These women were often side-lined when it came to promotions and giving raises.  Due to the Family and Medical Leave act of 1993, which enables women to stay home for a reasonable period of time after childbirth, and some legal challenges, women have been able to remain in the workforce after childbirth.  The Act extended to men, who can take paternal leave to stay home for a few days to bond with their newborns.  In some cases, organizations have offered additional leave time with pay to their staff.  According to Lisa Fritscher of EverydayHealth, these actions seem to have addressed the mommy track issue.

The Glass ceiling, on the other hand, has remained and in some cases have become more pervasive, even though we are well into the 21st century.  It is called the glass ceiling because women can see through it but are often not able to break through it.

In a study led by Colleen Ammerman and Boris Groysberg (Harvard Business Review Press, April 13, 2021) the authors noted that 40 percent of men believed that their gender had been an advantage in advancing their careers.  They noted that many female CEOs “struggle to reach the 10 percent mark across a variety of indices.”  They propose in their upcoming book, Glass Half Broken:  Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work, solutions, not only to crack the glass ceiling but to shatter it altogether.

Joan Lublin, the Wall Street Journal Columnist, in her book, Power Moms:  How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life(February 2021), shares stories from interviews she held with 86 executive mothers from the trailblazing Boomer generations and Generation X, showcasing how they used what she calls “work-life sway” to push through barriers at work, to remain in positions of power while raising their families.  The book shows how far executive women have to go to maintain their positions at work.  She describes how Genevieve Aronson, the North American vice president of communications at the TV ratings company Nielsen, would wake up at 2 or 3 am three times a week, to jumpstart her day, and how before having children, she used to sleep with her phone in her hand.

Stacy Tank, a young executive mom, who had climbed the ladder to become a senior vice president at Heineken, USA, held conference calls from her hospital bed while suffering from preeclampsia during her pregnancy.  Meaghan Schmidt, a managing director for a global management consulting firm had fought to gain a seat at the table, to the extent that she carried on a meeting as the only woman in the room, with 10 male participants, while she was having a miscarriage.  These are extreme examples, we might say, but they are real.

Other Ways Glass Ceiling Shows Up

The Glass ceiling shows up in our personal and social lives as well, in different societies, and different ways.  In certain parts of the world, girls’ education is not given priority, although research conducted in various countries has indicated that “educating girls is one of the most cost-effective ways of spurring development”(Tembon, 2008). In those societies, parents ensure that their male children go to school and achieve the highest education they desire, but the girls are relegated to becoming cooks, and farm workers.

Even in Western societies where women receive education, gender bias is still evident. When a husband and wife return from work, both having worked hard all day, the woman quickly changes and enters the kitchen to prepare a meal, while the man sits in front of the television wondering when dinner will be served.

In other cases, a woman who pursues her career, sometimes almost does so apologetically, especially if she is a mother with young children.  This is because she feels judged by society, to the extent that she begins to judge herself and feel unworthy. This is because the prevailing notion is that women should not put their careers over raising their children. Those who resort to starting a business of their own, sometimes do not have the same level of support as their male counterparts.  Many of them are challenged by how to access loans, for example, that they sometimes resort to using their savings to start their business. According to Dayna Winter, in her article, “Getting Funded:  How Gender Bias Affects Women Founders”(2020), she notes that “62% of women entrepreneurs report that they experience some form of gender bias during the funding process,” although they represent 42% of all businesses, employ 9.4 million people, and report $1.9 trillion in revenues.

African American women, feel the significance of the glass ceiling even more, as it affects them in two ways: 1) as a pay cap for women; and 2) as a way to maintain social separation between blacks and whites, often resulting in white domination. Minda Harts, the author of “The Memo:  What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table” shares how glass ceilings are not created equal, reflecting on the barriers that black women face in corporate America.  For the black woman, the glass ceiling grows even more opaque, as she sometimes has to hide her authentic self to be accepted in the corporate world.

Coach Diversity writes, “Although great efforts have been made to encourage diversity and equality in the workplace, many people still struggle to advance their careers despite having relevant qualifications and experiences.  With 7 in 10 executives falling into the ‘white male’ category, it’s clear that there’s a serious imbalance in high-level opportunities available for people of another gender, race, age, or religion.”

The Advantage of Diversity in Leadership

Many are quick to point out the list of women who have either managed to crack the glass ceiling or in their specific cases, even shattered it, particularly, political women. Forbes, in its list of 100 Powerful women of 2020, cite Kamala Harris, who went from reclaiming the mic from Vice President Pence, by her famous comeback, “Mr. President, I’m speaking,” to become the first female, the first African American and the first Asian American to be elected vice President of the United States. Forbes’ list also includes Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, the first female Chancellor of Germany; two women hailed for the efficient ways they handled Coronavirus.  Others are Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan’s Tsai Ingwen, and Finland’s Sanna Marin.  “These have attracted many headlines, but little academic attention”, The Guardian notes in the article, “Female-led countries handled coronavirus better”.

Public perceptions about these women and their achievements have been interesting, reflecting a lot of gender stereotypes that affect both how people perceive women and how women behave.  Female leaders are said to be democratic or participative.  They tend to invite their subordinates to the table, to participate in decision-making, and tend to lead through motivation and engaging in their followers’ shared interests.  Men, on the other hand, are said to rely on incentives, perseverance in the face of danger, and assertiveness–qualities they say women leaders struggle with. Yet, many of the countries where the swiftest prevention measures were put in place, and who are now leading returns to work, are female-led countries.

It is true that countries that are doing well, are not focused on the gender of their leaders, rather the focus is usually on good policies, clear communication, information-sharing, and whether or not their leaders listen. It bears noting, however, that female leaders have less room for error than their male counterparts.  Voters are said to be more inclined to punish female leaders for policy failures while giving male leaders a pass for “bad luck.”

Despite the deep-seated gender bias, it goes without saying that female leaders bring a refreshing alternative to the traditional, male-focused leadership style.

Although gender equality is becoming a regular topic of discussion within “best-in-class organizations”, many professional women still face daily hurdles in the workplace, including office politics and gender bias.  These create internal struggles, that erode their confidence, causing hesitancy in developing professional relationships. Compounding the problem, according to EIAdvantage.ca, is the belief among about 50% of men that women are currently well represented in companies and as such should not complain.  In reality, only 10% of senior leaders are women. (“Shatter the Glass Ceiling by Coaching Women Who Lead.”)

One of the first steps in overcoming the external glass ceiling that shows up in different areas of our lives, is first through awareness that the problem exists, by both those at the receiving end and by organizational leaders.  Often this is disguised as organizational culture or tradition.  The clue might be, phrases like “that’s how things are done around here,” or through prejudicial language, dubbed, “banter”.

Next is for the person at the receiving end, in this case, women to tackle what has been described as our “internal glass ceilings”.  Everyone experiences these, but particularly women.  These may manifest in the form of underlying beliefs and negative mindsets that create stories that have us stuck. The reason a glass ceiling exists must be that one is qualified for the given position, but because of some bias, conscious or unconscious, he or she is prevented from advancement.  It is important then, that women do not allow these external biases to create an internal glass ceiling, which can be much more dangerous because it paralyzes people from taking action.

A powerful way to help create this awareness and subsequently actions that help tackle this issue is professional coaching. It is seen as an asset that can enable women leaders to thrive in their workplaces and can help current leaders create a diverse work culture that drives innovative thinking. It is an excellent resource for individuals and businesses looking to break the glass ceiling which stunts career potential for women.

Coaching, when done effectively done, can help women with the following challenging areas:

  • manage their beliefs
  • manage their stress levels
  • manage their perceptions
  • manage their time
  • strengthen their executive presence,
  • help them strategically think about the future of their careers,
  • help them develop professional relationship building skills,
  • help them create a future-forward plan to increase influence and
  • help them increase EI skills and self-awareness.

Executive coaching has been described as an “indispensable GPS” which is an essential tool to advance one’s career.  Although it can help both male and female professionals in the workplace, it is particularly important for women because their leadership journey is not direct, as they encounter many obstacles and unexpected challenges along the way.

Coaching empowers women to see strength in themselves that they had not noticed before and also helps them reframe the perspectives that get in the way of them seeing what the real problems might be that is derailing their progress, whether in the corporate world or Society.  It is therefore important for coaches to ensure that they are powerfully supporting their clients.

The glass ceiling describes the ways people, particularly women, are held back from opportunities they are well-qualified for due to bias, tradition, or status quo. It is real and needs to be identified both by those affected by it and by organizational leaders so that more work can be done to move the matter from research to implementation.  Of particular danger is the stories it creates in affected individuals, which cause them to develop an internal glass ceiling that causes them to lose the zeal to keep fighting, and therefore remain stuck. Coaching is an essential tool that can empower women and help them thrive in these situations.  It is, indeed, an indispensable GPS for women facing internal or external GPS.


Ammerman, Colleen, and Groysberg Boris, Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work

Clay, Velma Lee, African American Females and the Glass Ceiling in the Defense Logistics Agency,https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2555&context=dissertations

EIAdvantage, “Shatter the Glass Ceiling by Coaching Women Who Lead.https://eiadvantage.ca/shatter-the-glass-ceiling-by-coaching-women-who-lead/

ERC, “Women and Leadership:  How to Develop More Female Leadershttps://www.yourerc.com/blog/post/Women-Leadership-How-to-Develop-More-Female-Leaders

Fritscher, Lisa, The Glass Ceiling Effect and Its Impact on Women https://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/glass-ceiling-effect-its-impact-on-women/

Forbes, “Women, The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women

Hohlbaum, Christine Louise, “The Power of Slow”,https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-slow/202102/will-the-glass-ceiling-ever-fully-shatter

Harts, Minda, “Glass Ceilings Aren’t Created Equal:  Confronting the Barriers Black Women Face in Corporate America,” https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/glass-ceilings-arent-created-equal-confronting-barriers-minda-harts/Lublin, Joann S, Power Moms: How Executive Mothers Navigate Work and Life Hardcover

Marcus, Bonnie, “Working with a Coach Helps Ambitious Women Get Ahead, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2015/05/04/working-with-a-coach-helps-ambitious-women-get-ahead/?sh=790399a11c4a

Mind Tools, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling-Overcoming Invisible Barriers to Success, https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCDV_71.htm

Reddy, Ashok, “The Glass Ceiling Effect in Human Resource Management”, https://reddycashok.medium.com/the-glass-ceiling-effect-in-human-resource-management-15eb0c663f13

The Guardian, Female-led Countries Handled Coronavirus Better, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/18/female-led-countries-handled-coronavirus-better-study-jacinda-ardern-angela-merkel


Tembon, Mercy; Fort, Lucia. “Girls’ Education in the 21st Century: Gender Equality, Empowerment, and Economic Growth”.  https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/6554 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.”

Winter, Dayna, “Getting Funded:  How Gender Bias Affects Women Founders, https://www.shopify.com/blog/gender-bias-funding

Washington Post “Opinion: In a global emergency, women are showing how to lead.

Original source: https://coachcampus.com/coach-portfolios/research-papers/diversity-glass-ceiling-and-women-empowerment-through-coaching/

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