· 3 min read · Features

Time to break the glass ceiling for good


The glass ceiling metaphor is perhaps unhelpful in failing to account for the variety of factors that can influence career progression – 'the glass labyrinth' might be more useful

The adoption of the glass ceiling metaphor has created widespread awareness of the underrepresentation of women in leadership. But I suggest it is now time to stop using this metaphor.

A glass ceiling suggests a structural fault or organisational issue. It implies that the likelihood of progression is equitable up until the top. By depicting a single obstacle at a high level, the glass ceiling metaphor fails to account for the number and variety of factors that can influence career progression at any point of a career journey; factors such as competing domestic responsibilities, the tendency for individuals to recruit within their own image, and perceptions of self-efficacy or self-motivation.

Challenging the glass ceiling metaphor will empower women to understand the situation more appropriately. Metaphors are important, they can inform interventions, guide policies, attitude and action and they have the power to initiate change. So it is essential we get it right.

The use of the glass ceiling metaphor fails to call for change for individuals. Change appears futile as the analogy suggests that success is determined by the organisation. Continued use of this metaphor may encourage women to continue to behave in the way society expects and not to challenge the status quo.

However, as part of my postgraduate research (supervised by Ruth Sealy at City University London), I interviewed female chief executive officers and managing directors to explore factors they considered critical to the success of their appointments. All of these women reported on the importance of establishing visibility, building trust and gaining acceptance to confer advantage. They networked and used their connections in a non-gender-stereotypical manner.

In contrast, they perceived women to lack the ability, knowledge or opportunity to do the same. My previous article ‘Women must use their social capital to get to the top’ provides some solutions on how women can improve their chance of success. The use of the glass ceiling metaphor may deter women from taking positive steps to initiate change.

Eagly and Carli proposed the use of an alternative concept, that of a labyrinth, a complex irregular network of passages. A labyrinth demonstrates the notion of a complicated journey, in which there are a variety of obstacles that can be faced at any point, but ultimately the goal, a promotion to a senior role, is attainable. The use of this metaphor better conveys the intricacies of the challenges women face in their professional lives.

Adopting the labyrinth metaphor instead of the glass ceiling one allows an appreciation for the complexities and subtle inequalities that arise throughout a woman’s career. It also demonstrates the unique interaction between the structure (i.e. organisation) and the individual (i.e. employee). Any one individual can take a number of different routes and face differing challenges in the pursuit of the same end goal, of a senior-level appointment.

However, I don’t consider the labyrinth construct particularly empowering. The prospect of looming walls and restricted visibility arguably fails to instil hope. It is interesting to note that many of the metaphors in the field of women in leadership include glass: the glass ceiling, the glass cliff, and the glass escalator. Perhaps the labyrinth analogy can be improved by similarly incorporating this, i.e. the glass labyrinth. This adaptation inspires more hope than the presence of opaque impenetrable barriers and communicates the notion that obstacles can be invisible. It also portrays the view that women navigating their journey to leadership can have the opportunity to reflect back and can consider a multitude of approaches or options for going forward.

The inequality of women in leadership is evidently still rife. To address this, it is time we break the glass ceiling for good. This is meant both in the sense of discarding the use of this metaphor and also in improving gender parity. The glass ceiling analogy suppresses women’s self-belief to excel to the top. It is time to embrace the glass labyrinth. An analogy that conveys the unique interaction between an organisation and employee, demonstrates that challenges should be expected along the way, and encapsulates the prospect of being able to conquer unforeseen obstacles.

This has the power to inspire and compel change.

Natasha Abajian is a business psychologist at Deloitte Leadership and postgraduate researcher at City University London