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2.8 from 31 votes

Executive Summary: The Glass Ceiling

Date: December 20 2006

Although minorities and women have made some headway in U.S. management and professional positions in the last decade, the corporate "glass ceiling" still appears to be an obstacle to their advancement into senior leadership. Originally, the term "glass ceiling" referred to the sometimes unseen, yet nonetheless real, barriers to women's progression into top-level management positions. While it still refers to obstacles encountered by women of all ethnicities, the expression's usage has widened to include barriers blocking both men and women of ethnic and other minorities.

There have been some signs of progress. More than half of all professionals in the U.S. are female, but they tend to be more underrepresented among the most prestigious and well-paid professionals, such as doctors and lawyers. Further, although they constitute 46.6% of the U.S. labor force, women account for just 36.7% of managers and 23.3% of chief executives.

African Americans and Hispanics also continue to be underrepresented in various management and professional jobs in the U.S. as of 2004. Department of Labor statistics place the percentage of all U.S. chief executives who are African Americans at 3.2%, well below their demographic representation (12.1%) in the U.S. population. Hispanic Americans are just 3.7% of chief executives but 13.7% of the U.S. population.

Minorities and women hold a total of 29% of U.S. corporate board seats, according to 2005 figures from the Alliance of Board Diversity. The group noted that minorities represent about half of that percentage and that companies tend to hire the same limited group of minority members for multiple boards: African American men held an average of 1.6 seats per person, while Hispanic men averaged 1.3 seats. Asian Americans accounted for just 1.1% of U.S. board seats.

Reported reasons for the glass ceiling's continued presence vary. Among the factors mentioned are gender-influenced attitudes, family responsibilities, clashing value systems, stereotyping, bias against skin color and even boredom with management positions. Although minority and female education levels - oft-cited reasons for barriers in years past - are rising, wage gaps still plague women, in particular. Average pay for U.S. female workers is about 77% of men's earnings, and the ratio may be as low as about 44% over the course of a woman's career.

Governmental intervention - in the form of antidiscrimination laws and penalties imposed by enforcement agencies - is one means of addressing glass ceilings. Companies are taking action, too, while also taking care not to leave themselves vulnerable to legal problems arising from their good intentions. Corporate attorneys nationwide say that their biggest fear is employment lawsuits - including sex-discrimination actions - and they call such suits their companies' area of greatest vulnerability to litigation.

Firms work to eliminate barriers through educational programs, career development, organizational changes and greater emphasis on workforce diversification. Nonprofits and professional networks also strive to abolish the obstacles that keep women and minorities from realizing their career aspirations. In addition, individuals who have broken through glass ceilings share their success stories to motivate and mentor those who follow in their footsteps.

Generally, business leaders express an optimistic outlook for the future. In 2005, Korn/Ferry International reported that senior executives anticipate greater diversity in corporate leadership and board representation in the coming decade. Similarly, Human Resource Institute research found North American and European firms concur that the glass ceiling issue will diminish in importance during that time. Finally, Census Bureau estimates have minorities accounting for 40% of college students by 2020, underscoring the conclusion that companies that commit to diversity now should be ideally positioned to attract the best talent for U.S. workplaces of the future.

To have full access to this report, become a member of i4cp today at

The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp, inc.) improves corporate productivity through a combination of research, community, tools and technology focused on the management of human capital. With more than 100 leading organizations as members, including many of the best-known companies in the world, i4cp draws upon one of the industry’s largest and most-experienced research teams and Executives-in-Residence to produce more than 10,000 pages annually of rapid, reliable and respected research and analysis surrounding all facets of the management of people in organizations. Additionally, i4cp identifies and analyzes the upcoming major issues and future trends that are expected to influence workforce productivity and provides member clients with tools and technology to execute leading-edge strategies and "next" practices on these issues and trends. i4cp is a for-profit company with offices in St. Petersburg, Florida.


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