Executive Insider

How High Exactly is the “Glass Ceiling” for Women?

What do women want? It’s not that complicated: we want a fair shake. We want the chance to thrive and succeed and grow in our careers. Which is why conversation surrounding breaking the “glass ceiling” has been prevalent for nearly 40 years now, since the term started seeing use in the 1980s.

Issues with gender bias and stereotyping have made advancement absurdly difficult, leading to pay gaps, rampant discrimination, and harassment… unfortunately, you’ve heard all this before. Many have tried to define how high the glass ceiling for women is, in the hopes that by understanding the obstacles we face, we can take strides to shatter it.

There’s no doubt that progress has been made, especially in our modern times. 44 percent of companies have three or more women in their C-suite, which is up from 29 percent just five years ago. In addition to this, women currently surpass men in tertiary education in nearly every region of the world. Women are better educated and a growing demographic in business leadership. But we’re still a ways off from gender equity in the workforce.

And in reality, the threshold is incredibly low. A study by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company reveals that the biggest obstacle women face is in the first step up to manager, which the study aptly refers to as “the broken rung.” Men hold 62 percent of managerial positions, and only 38 percent are women. More and more women are getting stuck at the entry-level because of this.

You could say this means that the proverbial glass ceiling is low. But it’s not as if women break through the first managerial obstacle and are suddenly in the clear. In fact, the number of women in senior positions decreases at every subsequent level beyond the initial manager stage. It’s not really a singular glass ceiling like the term implies — it’s more of a constant series of them, where women are constantly undermined and blocked at every stage of their career. This constant upward battle for women must be addressed.

The positive effects of gender equality and greater female leadership are self-evident: increased profitability and productivity, greater innovation, better ability to gauge consumer interest and so much more. When company boards are gender-balanced, they are almost 20 percent more likely to have enhanced business outcomes. So of course, it’s not really about why we should strive for more women in leadership roles, it’s how.

A lot can be said about how businesses need to change up their processes to support women, and that’s definitely important. But in particular, I’m interested in how women themselves can push forward and see change done for themselves. I think one of the best and most meaningful ways to do this is to simply change up the conversation.

Seeing as how the “glass ceiling” metaphor has been worn out and seems almost inaccurate of the actual experience, it’s time for the language around this issue to evolve. That’s exactly what we’re seeing with the powerful women in society, especially those in politics, such as Elizabeth Warren who instead said that she will “persist,” or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who uses phrases like “shake the table” and “build our own house.”

What these phrases do is help put the struggles that professional women face in a modern and more empowering context. Glass ceiling implies being trapped, whereas “shake the table” and “build our own house” are confident displays of capability. To “persist” implies resilience, rather than the forcefulness of shattering the glass ceiling. This rhetoric focuses less on the obstacles and more on the goals. It’s inspiring and something that I feel can give women hope and confidence rather than to make them feel weighed down.

But this doesn’t mean ignoring the injustices that women face. The language is evolving to continue addressing that aspect as well. Terms like “likability trap,” “double-bind,” or the “motherhood penalty” pinpoint the nuances of the biases against women as we vie for leadership positions. They highlight the paradoxical expectations set for women and show the ways in which our own gender can be held against us.

Altogether, this new way to speak about what is commonly referred to as the glass ceiling will breathe new life into the conversation and spark change.

As women aim higher and higher — after all, why shouldn’t we — we must take greater control of the conversation, in order to highlight the specific struggles and to empower other women to be bold and fierce. Forget about breaking the glass ceiling — shake the table instead. Build your own house. Persist.

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Debra Whelan Johnson
Debra Whelan Johnson is an experienced business operations executive, financial advisor, lawyer, and professor. She currently runs Allied Financial Advisors with her business partner Randy Hermann, where they aim to provide financial and business management assistance to professionals and companies in the entertainment and film industries. Debra earned a B.A from Howard University after studying business and communications, and received her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law. Debra Whelan Johnson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.