Career : Women and the Glass Ceiling

Hagberg Consulting Group

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Risk, Rescue and Righteousness

Recent research indicates women's management style, which is centered on communication and building positive relationships, is well suited to the leadership paradigm of the 90's. However, the strategies used by women to reach mid-management levels are preventing them from breaking through the glass ceiling. There are specific things women must start doing and stop doing if they want to move into the executive suite. The research is of obvious importance to women managers, but has implications for men as well. To be successful, both men and women must be able to get bottom-line results through people-oriented leadership practices.

In 1971 I got my first real job. I quickly learned many of the realities of life, among them that women could not be managers. We were not worth investing in because we would just get married, get pregnant, and quit. We were too emotional. In fact, once a month we would do something that remained undefined, but was assumed to be totally unacceptable. Most importantly, we would be taking a good job from a man who really needed it, and by implication, deserved it. 

Times Changed

Times changed. Twenty years later, as one of the top thirty-five women in a fortune 500 company, I was asked to participate in a glass ceiling task force chartered by the CEO. It had come to his attention that while women represented over 50% of the professional workforce, they presented only 6% of the executive team. As the task force meetings progressed, I became more and more enraged. My fury silently smoldered around three key issues:

Asking us to explain why we weren't being promoted by men executives was a form of blaming the victim, a role we are so accustomed to it that we do not question it, or even recognize it is being done.

I was a member of an organizational system that was willing to marginalize the talents and contributions of over 50% of its members because of their gender.

My realization of our impotence

All of the recommendations made by the task force concerned changes the organization and the men in it needed to make. We were once again being the victim, giving others the power over our lives that we seemed unable to claim for ourselves.

I felt my fellow task force members had paid their corporate dues and proven themselves as competent managers. The lack of progress in breaking through the glass ceiling was both frustrating and disillusioning. I wondered why women are finding it so difficult to move into the executive suite. Was it simply the result of individual prejudice on the part of male executives ? Was it due to organizational obstacles women have yet to overcome ? Or, are the basic personality characteristics and leadership styles of women managers contributing to their lack of movement to the top ? Judith Rosener, Tom Peters, and other management gurus have contended women's interpersonal, management, and leadership styles are better suited than men's to the leadership challenges of the 90's. What exactly is going on? 


Over the past several years I have tried to answer this question for myself. I've read articles and talked to literally hundreds of women about this issue. In 1993, as a member of Hagberg Associates, a San Mateo based firm specializing in executive development, I conducted research that provided thought-provoking answers to my questions. We analyzed over 300 senior managers and executives in our client base to compare both the personality characteristics and the leadership styles of men and women managers. Our clients held high level positions in firms ranging from small, high-tech startups to international conglomerates. In the process of helping clients assess their strengths and weaknesses, Hagberg Associates uses both personality assessments and coworker feedback from peers, superiors and subordinates. The 1993 research was based on data from 237 men managers and 67 women managers. The average age of the women was 41; for men the average was 42. The study participants held upper management and executive positions and were distributed across organizational levels. Women represented 30% of Managers/Directors, 12% of Vice Presidents and less than 1% of Presidents/CEOs. Personality assessments included in the study were the 16 Personality Factors, the Jackson Personality Inventory, and the Personality Research Form. Each individual was also rated by 20 to 30 co-workers on 47 management leadership dimensions encompassing problem solving and decision-making skills, social and communication skills, personal characteristics, leadership attributes and management skills.

In the past, much of the information in the press about the glass ceiling has been based on interviews and anecdotes. The Hagberg Associates study was fairly unique in 1993 because it was developed from objective data. Since then, I have found other research that also supports the findings. I have concluded that women are as effective in leadership roles as men. Women's style, which centers around communication and positive working relationships, is better suited to the team oriented leadership model strongly promoted in the nineties. However, some of the strategies women have used to arrive, survive and excel at mid-management levels are preventing them from moving up. In fact, there are specific things women must start doing and stop doing if they are to position themselves to break through the glass ceiling. 

Differences in style

Are there really differences in management style between men and women ? My own research and that of others indicates that seasoned leaders, whether men or women, share certain characteristics. They are self-disciplined, ambitious, know their stuff and are likely to embrace a visible, take charge and actively influential approach to their roles.

But the research also indicates that in many ways, women are more successful than men at traditional, day-to-day tasks of management. Co-workers rate women higher in such skills as hiring the right people for the job, developing and coaching subordinates, and organizing, monitoring and controlling the work of others. Co-workers also find women better at creating a vision and setting clear direction and high standards of performance.

Leadership 2000

So much for the management basics. Is women's management style, as suggested by management gurus, more appropriate for the leadership changes ahead ? The key premises behind the management paradigm of the future are :-

  • To survive in a business world characterized by rapid change and increasing complexity, those who can tolerate ambiguity and make decisions in the face of uncertainty will rise to the top.
  • Traditional hierarchical organizations are a thing of the past.
  • People and process are as important as task and results.
  • Employees will demand, and the fewer layers of management will require, empowerment at all levels of the organization.
  • Teamwork leads to success and the team must come before the star.
  • Workforce diversity and the globalization of business will require far more acceptance of individual differences and flexibility in management approach and style than ever before.
  • Managers will spend more and more of their time in situations where they do not have command authority; they will not necessarily be the technical expert but rather the synthesizer of cross-functional activities encompassing different fields of knowledge.

We labeled this new management paradigm Leadership 2000.

Research shows women managers much more closely match this paradigm than men. Women are better suited to the team orientation of the Leadership 2000 model. They understand that personal success is dependent on the support of others. Contrary to common stereotype, women are better team players than men. They are better at communicating and keeping people informed, important skills in flat, non-hierarchical organizations. They are able to put the success of the team first, using influencing skills rather than authority to accomplish objectives.

Managing a diverse workforce may well be an easier and more natural task for women. Personality testing shows women managers have less traditional values, are more tolerant of differences and are less bound by social conventions. This is not surprising considering that twenty years ago when today's women managers entered the workforce, conventional wisdom said women should not be managers. Because of women's own experiences with prejudice and discrimination, I surmise they can deal with people who are different from themselves in a more empathetic manner.

Research also shows that women follow the Leadership 2000 model in terms of the ability to motivate others. Women emphasize behaviors which generate enthusiasm in their organizational relations, are generally more expressive of their thoughts and feelings and more readily show appreciation of the efforts of others. Women leaders are seen by coworkers as more inspirational role models than their male counterparts. With all this going for them, why aren't women moving into the executive suite at a faster rate? Discrimination and organizational obstacles, supported by historical and cultural norms, are certainly part of the problem. However, research leads me to believe that basic personality characteristics combined with the management behavior and strategies women have used to succeed at mid-management levels are now preventing them from breaking through the glass ceiling. The obstacles women are creating for themselves fall into three major categories; risk, rescue and righteousness.


Concern about striking out prevents women from hitting home runs

Avoiding criticism by crossing all the t's and dotting all the i's has been a necessary strategy for women to get to mid-management levels. Some learned early on that anything less than perfect work could be used as a reason to take them out of the running. Women's approach to problem solving has therefore been cautious, thoughtful and detail-oriented. Women look for subtlety and complexity in the environment, a trait shared with minority groups in general. Personality assessments indicate women have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, traits that are important in our Leadership 2000 model. This tolerance for ambiguity also allows women to take the time needed to collect more data, consider multiple options, and carefully choose from a full range of solutions. This less action-oriented style slows down the entire problem solving process.

Although this decision making style is in apart natural, it is also a response to a male-dominated culture that has shaped and influenced the style women have needed to be credible. It has exacerbated women's lack of action orientation, making them reluctant to take risks without having covered all the bases. This conservative style of management, developed and rewarded at lower, more task oriented organizational levels, hinders women managers from being given line management opportunities and the high risk assignments that provide visibility and make careers. The need to take calculated risks becomes even more critical in the context of rapid change and uncertainty we have defined as part of the Leadership 2000 model. 


Women need to create game plans, not worry about ironing team uniforms

The second obstacle facing women is their own highly developed sense of responsibility combined with concern for, and loyalty to, the team. Although women have to be just as independent and achievement oriented as men to get ahead, they also tend to more clearly recognize the need for group support to accomplish personal goals.

There is a downside to the team orientation and sense of responsibility women feel. Women can easily get mired in the details in an attempt to make sure everything is handled correctly and everyone is feeling OK. Their tendency to get bogged down in the short term, tactical part of the management job has limited the development of strategic capabilities. It prevents women from being viewed as having a big picture perspective and the ability to keep their eye on the ball.

Women's orientation toward the group is causing them to take on too much responsibility, moving them into a rescuing and mothering mode. I suspect women are repeating the same rescuing pattern at home, further diminishing the amount of energy and focus they can bring to the job.


Locking horns with umpires gets women thrown out of the game

The final obstacle to breaking the glass ceiling is one I call righteousness. Women would be far more successful if they learned to present their ideas and proposals more dispassionately. Even though women's decisions are of high quality, they continue to be viewed as less objective, less flexible, and lower in emotional control than men. This may be a result of how they present their ideas and plead their cases. Women's more forthright and transparent communication style, appreciated by those they manage, may well appear less polished and diplomatic than men's when dealing with those above them in the hierarchy. In situations that require tact, women have difficulty putting on a "game face." Because they have done their homework, they dig in their heels when challenged by less informed coworkers. Women forget the end goal, get bogged down in their commitment to the process, presenting issues in terms of right or wrong. If the woman manager is right, that makes her colleagues wrong by implication, starting a cycle that can only end in a win-lose scenario. Women must learn to present a case for corporate action rather than defending a private cause to the death. 

The Bottom Line

What does all this mean to women managers? In spite of excellent management and leadership skills, women contribute to their own inability to break through the glass ceiling in subtle ways stemming from personality attributes, social conditioning and learned management styles.

Women's current strategies for interacting with the world are deeply embedded in a day-to-day operating approach which is difficult to change. However, the key to the executive washroom is in women's hands.

Further progress up the corporate ladder will require women to :-

  • start focusing energy
  • start taking risks
  • stop getting mired in the details
  • stop rescuing and mothering
  • stop making things right or wrong

Constant self-reflection combined with focused mentoring and coaching are required for real and sustained change to occur.


In closing, I want to present a personal challenge. I am going to frame that challenge in terms of the civil rights movement. Those of us who are old enough remember individuals called "freedom riders" know what it feels like when you believe change will occur and must occur - yet the obstacles to change appear overwhelming. Equality in the executive suite has that same sense of inevitability. The time has come for those of us who have been riding in the back of the corporate bus to make the changes that will allow us to move forward with courage and conviction. Those who are currently in front of the bus must not look at us as interlopers or unwanted competitors, but as partners on a common journey. We have valuable lessons to teach each other, talents from which we can mutually learn and grow.

Competitiveness in the global marketplace depends on our collective ability to get the right people, with the right talent, on the right bus, headed in the right direction. We can no longer afford to leave half of our human assets at the station.

copyright © 1998 by Hagberg Consulting Group. All rights reserved.

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