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Glass Ceilings

Updated on March 14, 2011

Glass Ceilings

Glass ceilings rarely exist, or rather, they are almost always self-imposed, imaginary through a lack of realism, or an excuse for failure, to avoid having to admit that you were not good enough.

Racism, sexism, ageism, and several other -isms all still exist in the small minds of many people; however, companies, governments, organisations, etc. (at least in the western world) have extensive measures and processes in place to ensure that they do not exhibit, or are not seen to exhibit, these -isms in any of their dealings, and so the bigoted, or small-minded, individuals within those organisations are usually prevented from exercising their -isms by the greater organisation.

Let’s take a look at the self-imposed glass ceiling. Say you are an effective and successful middle-manager looking to break into the rarified world of senior management. I think it is fairly true to say that there is a certain “clubbiness” in senior management - from the “senior management club” perspective you are either “one of us” or “one of them”.

Now, if you have been very effective as a middle manager, managing down - i.e. running your part of the business, building a team and the respect of those who work for you, focussing on results, delegating effectively - but you have neglected managing upwards, or, worse still, you have been a thorn in the side of the senior management, demanding consessions or changes from them, disagreeing with their initiatives, or fighting them, or passively resisting implementing them, creating new problems for them, or bringing problems to them instead of solutions, albeit for your own perceived betterment of the organisation as a whole, then will they will see you as “one of them” and not “one of us”.

Would you invite a troublemaker to join your club, or would you try to keep them out? Would you propose or second someone to join your elite club who you had heard some good things about, if you did not really know them personally, especially if you knew that they also had a bit of a reputation as being a troublemaker?

Suppose that instead of trying to be a highly effective middle manager, you had focussed on doing your senior manager’s job for him/her. (I’ll use just “him” going forward, but feel free to substitute “her” in your own mind). You offered to attend some meetings for him, to help him with a difficult report, or to meet some key stakeholders prior to a difficult negotiation to try to get them on side, etc. You may now not have the time to be a highly effective middle-manager anymore, but you are certainly being seen by the senior management as being “one of us”. They are meeting you, seeing you in action, seeing you as a help, not a hindrance; so what decision are they likely to make now when you ask if you can join their club? Indeed, they are just as likely, or even more likely, to ask you if you would like to join their club, as to wait for you to ask! You seem like just the sort of person that they want to have in their club, because you are useful to them.

Now suppose that you are black, asian, muslim, female, old, young, …..whatever…. and you have been a very successful middle-manager, but have applied for several senior management roles and never been successful. Is that because there is a glass ceiling due to your colour, race, religion, age, sex, etc. or is it simply because you have taken the wrong approach to becoming part of senior management? You may have imposed a glass ceiling on yourself through exhibiting the wrong behaviour to enable you to get into the club, but there is no organisational glass ceiling. It is simply human nature.

What about “lack of realism” or “an excuse for not being good enough” glass ceilings? Well, the above is applicable here too. It is unrealistic to think that you are going to get promoted into senior management just because you are a very effective middle manager - that’s simply not how the system works most of the time. Equally, though, if you are applying for jobs without the necessary experience and knowledge, and you are competing against people who do have that experience and knowledge, then however great a person you are, and however great you are at your current job, you are not going to get the senior management job that you applied for. Remember that the triangle narrows as you get closer to the top, and there are more people applying for fewer jobs, and the calibre and experience of the applicants is higher.

You are always competing against others for any job you apply for, and usually there is only position available, and therefore only one person who is going to get the job. This will be the “best” person, but who is “best” is sometimes hard to define or analyse as an applicant for the role. The interviewer(s) may well have a very detailed picture of the person they are looking for, and you may fit in all but one category, but someone else fits in all categories. They will get the job. You may have been “good enough” to get the job, but they were just that little bit better. If you have had a string of failures and are beginning to think that there is a “good reason” why you are not being successful, you may want to blame a glass ceiling, but you may just have been unlucky to have been second best at every one of those interviews, because there was a very slightly better fit candidate at each one.

Suppose that a company is after a person to influence government to amend or pass laws that favour their business, or to prevent it being restricted. You may be an excellent negotiator, lobbyist, etc. with years of experience, but what if one of the candidates for the role is the Prime Minister’s son or daughter, or an ex-Cabinet Minister still in favour with the current Cabinet? Clearly, even though you may be better qualified and more experienced in every other factor associated with the job, the job will go to the person who is perceived to have the most influence, which is likely to be the other candidate in this case.

You may call this a glass ceiling: “Just because I’m not close friends with anyone in the Cabinet, I can’t get these senior jobs that I am after. It’s a glass ceiling because of my working class background/because I’ve never worked for the government.”….or whatever…! However, it is not a real glass ceiling. There is nothing to stop you working out a plan to get to be friends with the current cabinet ministers. Maybe you do a slightly different job for a while that enables you to meet them. Maybe you find a cause to support which enables you to meet them, out of which you can grow a friendship. Maybe you find out what clubs they are members of and join those clubs. Maybe you find out which pub they drink in, or what restaurants they eat in, and you frequent the same ones, and over time get a chance to chat to them, and eventually befriend them. You might actually then become a better candidate for a particular role than a former Cabinet Minister, or the child of the Prime Minister, because you have a good, close personal friendship with the Minister who is required to be influenced.

So this is just about thinking about what you are trying to achieve with your career, and thinking laterally about how you get there.

I wouldn’t deny that in some companies, departments, etc. there will still be people who have enough influence to enable them to enact their prejudices and operate a glass ceiling. Look at their cross-section of employees, and who has been recruited recently, and you will discover who they are. Avoid them, and look elsewhere for a job. There is no point persevering when you have found a real glass ceiling. Go to another company or department that does not have one. However, in modern times, in the western world, remember that real glass ceilings are very rare, so be sure about what they are really looking for, and that you have done your research and homework properly, before you jump to the “glass ceiling” conclusion.

There are also some very fixed ideas about what constitutes “suitable experience” when you are applying for a job. For example, a lot of public sector recruiters do not believe that people with a private sector background will fit comfortably in the public sector, and automatically exclude them, even though they may be just what is needed for a particular role, and actually the best candidate. However, they will not be best when seen through the eyes and prejudices of the recruiter, simply because they do not have a public sector background. The same is true in reverse. Private sector companies are reluctant to employ people with only public sector backgrounds, as they regard them as un-commercial, lacking drive, etc. This is another subject entirely, which will be covered in future posts about “Fair Selection - who is it fair for?”.

Future hubs will also look at how you can manage your career to get to the top, if you are sure that this is what you want to achieve! It may not be quite as rosy when you get there as you thought is would be!


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