Glass Ceilings: How to Ensure Every Employee Has a Fair Chance to Advance

Glass ceilings can negatively affect an employee’s career trajectory, status, and lifetime earning potential.

glass ceilings graphic
Level the playing field for all your employees with these steps

“Glass ceilings have been broken, but more have to be broken.” -Madeleine Albright

The term “glass ceiling” refers to invisible barriers that keep women and minorities from advancing in the workplace. The term became part of professional culture in the 1980s when management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase. Though the origins of the label date back some 40 years ago, the idea remains as relevant as ever. Women hold only 10% of leadership roles within S&P companies, and just 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.

In theory, all qualified workers should be able to climb the ranks and attain the professional stature they yearn for; unfortunately, that is not always the case. Even with legal protections that should make the glass ceiling obsolete, American businesses still have a problem.

Glass ceilings can prevent qualified workers from working in specific roles, dramatically altering career trajectory, status, and lifetime earning potential.

Here is how to ensure your business offers a level playing field for all workers.

omen hold only 10% of leadership roles within S&P companies, and just 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.

Reverse-engineer your job roles

Break down the requirements for each position within your organization and list the steps needed to attain the skills, knowledge, and experience that match the conditions. Think about how each employee could reach the threshold and decide if there are barriers to doing so.

Re-evaluate your performance reviews

If performance reviews or evaluations are an essential part of your promotion process, ensure the categories and benchmarks considered are relevant to all workers. As needed, re-format your review templates to include bias-free language.

Perform an audit

The best way to tell if your organization has invisible barriers to success is to ask the people that work for you. Schedule a “town hall” type meeting with different departments’ employees and have an outsider lead the session. Employees are more likely to be candid with someone who does not work for the company. If not possible, anonymous surveys can be a great alternative. Ask questions like, “Have you ever felt discriminated against based on your sexual orientation, race, or gender at work?”

Manage your managers

Invest in inclusivity training for managers and impose a system of “checks and balances” to ensure that more than one person thoroughly reviews all promotions.
In many organizations, mid and senior-level managers call the shots when it comes to hiring and promotion. They can also decide which employees get specific projects, leaving room for bias to play a leading role. Invest in inclusivity training for managers and impose a system of “checks and balances” to ensure that more than one person thoroughly reviews all promotions.

Make the path clear

For employees who want to rise in the ranks, the way to get there shouldn’t be ambiguous. Have a clear-cut plan, including steps, skills, and objectives that all employees must meet before being considered for a promotion. Make this plan part of your employee handbook and ensure managers follow it to a tee. Explicit guidance on how to achieve promotion will level the playing field for all workers.

Track decisions with data

Understand your company’s current state of affairs by looking at who has been promoted and how they got there. For example, if your top salesman got promoted based on sales performance, determine what opportunities led them to that place. Did they get better leads than other employees? Did they receive special training? Pull reports where you can to see opportunity distribution and if you need to alter your operations.

Let Human Resources take the reins

If your workers need specialized training to advance within your organization, make sure they have access to it. Instead of relying on managers to provide training opportunities, empower your human resources department to inform employees about continuing education.

Despite legal protections and social awareness, the term “glass ceiling” and the meaning behind it are still alive and well in America. Invisible barriers within an organization can prevent qualified workers from climbing the ranks and reduce their ability to reach the highest stature positions in corporate America. Minorities and women still hold just a small fraction of leadership roles within fortune 500 and S&P firms.

In order to promote an inclusive workplace where all workers have an opportunity to thrive, businesses need to:

  • Perform regular audits or surveys of their workers to gain subjective feedback on workplace culture
  • Ensure management is trained extensively in anti-discriminatory practices, and
  • Have a clear roadmap to promotion that all employees and managers are aware of

Additionally, firms should reevaluate or redo their performance review process by implementing bias-free language, use data to track decisions, and allow Human Resources to communicate with employees about continuing education opportunities.

By identifying and breaking the glass ceiling within your organization, you can improve productivity, boost morale, and show all employees that they are valued members of the team. There are plenty of strategies outlined here to get you on the right path.


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